Generating new ideas is hard.
Students can choose from a seemingly unlimited number of topics – as long as they apply the scientific method or engineering principles. Giving students the most freedom possible is a good thing. I require students to stay away from projects that are a demonstration of a known idea or product testing. Unfortunately, the majority of proposed projects fall into just a few categories, and some don’t make good projects.
Because of ethical or safety concerns, students may find a few types of projects require some support from STEM professionals, including:
- Projects that involve humans (even for surveys)
- Projects that involve other animals (particularly vertebrates) or animal tissues
- Projects that involve microbes (particularly wild-types)
- Projects that involve hazardous chemicals
This doesn’t mean those projects can’t get approval or be done safely, just that they require extra oversight.
Among the most cringe-worthy:
- Surveys. Qualitative research is a real thing – but its not a science fair project.
- Anything that requires a student to use a device to measure the thing it was created to measure. (Sometimes the device is new to them, but measuring something isn’t an experiment.)
- Solving a problem the way it has been solved for a long time. For instance, “How well does a plate hold food?”
Students are often instructed something like, “Think about the problems around you, or something that you have wondered. Ask that question then answer it scientifically.” The problem, is that this makes students lean heavily to what impacts people. And they forget to consider they might be asking something they can just google.
One of their first assignments is to turn in their project notebooks, with “evidence of brainstorming”, along with preliminary research then a question and hypothesis. I learned this week that many of my students were never taught how to brainstorm. Apparently, this is one of the items that earlier teachers have told them they will be taught in the future, and something that in high school we assume they’ve already been taught.
The goal of brainstorming is to produce as many ideas as possible. Its terrific to have more than one idea to choose from when you are done! Some students will have 2-3 ideas they like, and even do background research on several before choosing one final topic. The most difficult thing is to not limit yourself too soon.
- Mind Map / Idea Webs – these are my favorite. Start with a central idea – anything – and connect other ideas to it.
- Categories – create a list of things, then broad categories. We did this at a Lego Robotics meeting last week to generate our team name. The team members threw out suggested names, we grouped them, chose our favorite in each group then chose our favorite from the groups.
- Lists – list your hobbies, list things you like to do, list your activities, list things you’ve thought are interesting…
- Use an idea journal – choose a number (10 is a good number to start with) and make a goal of coming up with five scientific questions each day. Keep a journal of these questions for a week or more, then use them to refine a topic.
- Engineering Design projects – think of a thing you use, and how to make it better.
Good vs. Bad
It may be helpful to get feedback on your ideas. Sometimes a “bad” idea can still be a good project with some tweaks, so don’t give up on an idea you like if you are really interested in it! Teachers and mentors – its your job to help redirect proprosed projects to make them better.
The first cut is “things that shouldn’t be projects”, including:
- Building a model for the sake of building the model. The days of building a model of a cell or a rocket for science fair (particularly at the Jr. High and High School level) are over. If its not a prototype that is undergoing testing to meet predetermined goals… then its not appropriate for science fair.
- Demonstrations should not be part of science fair. If you can google your question and get an answer, you probably are doing a demonstration and its not appropriate for science fair.
- Collections are not part of science fair.. with some exceptions. If the collection has a scientific purpose (like collecting fossils to identify ecologic change), then yes – the collection is data. Displaying a collection for the sake of taxonomy or systematic identification is not appropriate for science fair.
- A research report without an experiment is not appropriate for science fair.
Do you have other ways of finding a topic? Please share below in the comments!