Scientific Method

The Question

What is the Scientific Method?

The scientific method is the process by which scientists endeavor to construct an accurate answer to questions that we have about the universe. Basically, it involves thinking through possible answers to a certain question, and then objectively investigating each answer to prove that it is the correct one. Another way of describing the scientific method, is to say that it identifies "cause and effect" relationships.

The Question

The scientific method consists of many "stages". The first stage is called the "Question" or "Problem" stage. Here's where you ask a question that is based on phenomena/things that you, or someone else, has observed. 

For example, have you ever wondered whether sunscreen lotions with higher SPF (sun protection factor) values are really more effective? Does an SPF 50 sunscreen lotion offer better protection than an SPF 30 lotion, although the SPF50 is more expensive? 

Another example - you may notice during a classroom experiment that winding more coils of wire around an electromagnetic rod makes it more powerful. That might set you thinking about why and how electromagnetism works. You might then ask what else affects an electromagnet's strength? 

Some other examples: 

There are millions of questions that you could ask - and a great way to start is by observing things around you, your home, your school. For example, a fellow scientist uses a PC (personal computer) hooked up to three LCD monitors (flat screens). I wonder if working with three screens really does help him speed up his work - or maybe having too many things to look at concurrently actually slows him down? And have you wondered whether besides saving table-top space, do these LCD flat-screens emit less radiation than the almost-extinct CRT (cathode-ray tube) display screens? 

Choosing a question is probably the most important part of your science project. One method to help you choose a specific topic for your project is to first, start with a general category such as "plants". Then, narrow it down to one particular aspect of the topic. You could then ask yourself "What affects the growth rate of plants?" Once you have decided on this particular aspect of plants, you can then further narrow down to a very specific question such as "Do plants grow faster when they are grown hydroponically, instead of in soil?" 

There are many places to look for help in deciding on a topic or idea for your project. Some options are: 

Your Project Journal

As you consider various ideas for your project, you should record them in a notebook. This will be your journal. Your journal should also be used to record descriptions of your experiments, as well as the results of your experiments. This is where you will record all data, diagrams, charts etc. Remember that your journal will probably be displayed with the rest of your project, so make sure to keep it neat and systematic!

  1. Your own observations and past experience Based on what you may have recently observed, or perhaps noticed in the past, you may be able to come up with very interesting questions. For example, you may have noticed that birds never seem to have problems perching on power lines. This could become your research topic. 
  2. Refer to a Science project book Science fair project books usually contain many project ideas with instructions and detailed explanations. However, books can only contain that many ideas, due to physical constraints. 
  3. Search the web There are many websites out there which list ideas for science fair projects. You can perform a keyword search for "Science Fair Project" in your favorite search engine.

Getting Ideas: Questions to ask yourself

A very good way to find a suitable idea for your project is to ask questions such as: 

  • Why does it...? 
  • When did it...? 
  • What is it...? 
  • How does it...? 
  • Where was it...?

Sticking to your topic

Once you pick a question, you should stick to it. Jumping from one question to another will only set you back in your project. Therefore, it's important to spend time selecting a question that interests you. It helps to remember that the purpose of doing your project is to help you learn more about science. You're not doing this solely for the purpose of impressing the judges, or winning prizes. Your project does not necessarily have to be sophisticated or extremely challenging. Keeping it simple, is sometimes the best approach.

Science fair project categories

Each science fair will categorize entries into various topics. The description of these topics may vary from one science fair to another. For example, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair categorizes all entries into the following topics:
  • Animal Sciences
  • Behavioral and Social Sciences Biochemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Cellular and Molecular Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Earth and Planetary Science
  • Engineering: Electrical and Mechanical
  • Engineering: Materials and Bioengineering
  • Energy and Transportation
  • Environmental Management
  • Environmental Sciences
  • Mathematical Sciences
  • Medicine and Health Sciences
  • Microbiology
  • Physics and Astronomy
  • Plant Sciences

Intel ISEF Categories and Subcategories 

A great place to start doing your research for a topic for your science project is our BROWSE page. Our categorization of projects is very similar to the ISEF. Alternatively, you could use the SEARCH feature and perform keyword searches based on topics and questions that interest you.

Next: Research