Abbreviated Guide

Basic Questions about Experiments and Exhibits

What is an experiment?

It is an attempt to prove or test an idea or theory. It should be documented so others could try to repeat your experimental results using your notes, diagrams and other documents.

What is an exhibit?

An exhibit is where you display the results of your experiment or engineering project. An exhibit is where all the planning, procedure (also called protocol) and theory are presented along with the results. The results may not agree with what you had expected to happen but that is all right.

How long should the experiment take?

There are no time rules. The actual experiment itself could take only a moment to perform or it could take years for the data to be gathered. Documenting the experiment may take most of the time. The experiment you choose determines the time it will take. Choose an experiment that you can perform and document in time to prepare an exhibit for the fair.

Where can I get an idea for an experiment?

  • What have you studied?
  • What would you like to prove to yourself?
  • What tools or materials can you use?
  • Is there an engineering principle that you can test or try to improve?
  • Write down your ideas and talk with your teacher or your parents.

How can I avoid filling out lots of forms and certificates?

All experiments do require certificates, the experiments listed below require more care and more planning. Experiments that deal with humans, vertebrate animals, tissue samples, or recombinant DNA research require extra procedures, approvals and certificates before you even start.

Scientific Research and the Scientific Method

Science research tries to solve a problem or answer a question about people and the world in which we live. When choosing your topic, give careful thought to how your research will enhance the world and its inhabitants. Good scientists, both young and old, use the scientific method to study what they see in the world for cause and effect. By following the steps listed below you, can produce a superior experiment:

  1. Identify the problem or situation.
  2. Make an educated guess at a solution or a suspected outcome. This is your hypothesis. At this point you write up your plan and get it approved.
  3. Experiment and gather information and results.
  4. Analyze the information (data) gathered.
  5. Make conclusions based on your results. Remember that the purpose was to test your hypothesis.

Getting Started

What are the steps to go through to prepare for the experiment?

  1. Plan the entire experiment (Protocol)
  2. Read all the official rules.
  3. Go over your plans with your Adult Sponsor.
  4. Fill out all the certificates that apply to your experiment.
  5. Go over all the certificates with your Adult Sponsor.
  6. Get all the approvals and signatures required before you do any work.
  7. Begin the experiment and follow your protocol.
  8. If you need to change your protocol, talk to your Adult Sponsor and see if you need to get your certificates changed and re-signed before you go on.

Before you begin, please note that research refers to library research and information gathering. Experimentation refers to work done in the field or laboratory after forming a hypothesis. The exhibit refers to the display you prepare for the fair. The experiment and the exhibit are NOT the same thing.

  1. Pick Your Topic. Get an idea of what you want to study. Ideas might come from hobbies or problems you see that need solutions. Due to limited time and resources, you may want to study only one or two specific events.
  2. Research Your Topic. Go to the library and read everything you can on your topic. Observe related events. Gather existing information on your topic. Look for unexplained or unexpected results. At the same time, talk to professionals in the field, write to companies for information, and obtain or construct needed equipment.
  3. Organize and Theorize. Organize everything you have learned about your topic. At this point you should narrow down your hypothesis by focusing on a particular idea. Your library research should help you.
  4. Make a Timetable. As you narrow your ideas, remember to choose a topic that not only interests you, but can be done in the amount of time you have. Get out a calendar to mark important dates. Leave time to fill out the necessary forms and to go over the Checklist for Adult Sponsors and to review your (1A) Research Plan and (1B) Approval Form with your Adult Sponsor. Some projects need approval from a Scientific Review Committee (SRC) before they are started, so be sure to allow time to get that approval. Give yourself plenty of time to experiment and collect data—even simple experiments do not always go as you might expect the first time, or even the second time. After you have finished your experiments, you will probably need a few weeks to write a paper and put together an exhibit.
  5. Plan Out Your Research. Once you have a feasible project idea. you should write out a research plan. This plan should explain how you will do your experiment and exactly what it will involve. All Senior students participating in the EISEF and ISEF are required to complete the Checklist for Adult Sponsors, (1A) Research Plan and (1B) Approval Form.
  6. Consult Your Adult Sponsor. You are required to discuss your Research Plan with your Adult Sponsor and get his/her signature of approval. In reviewing (1A) Research Plan your Adult Sponsor should determine if additional forms and/or IRB/SRC approval is needed.
  7. Conduct Your Experiments. Give careful thought to experimental design. During experimentation keep detailed notes of each and every experiment, measurement, and observation. Do not rely on your memory. Remember to change only one variable at a time when experimenting, and make sure to include control experiments in which none of the variables are changed. Make sure you include sufficient numbers of test subjects in both control and experimental groups. A group must have five or more subjects to be statistically valid.
  8. Examine Your Results. When you complete your experiments, examine and organize your findings. Did your experiments give you the expected results? Why or why not? Was your experiment performed with the exact same steps each time? Are there other causes that you had not considered or observed? Were there errors in your observations? Remember that understanding errors and reporting that a suspected variable did not change the results can be valuable information. If possible statistically analyze your data.
  9. Draw Conclusions. Which variables are important? Did you collect enough data? Do you need to conduct more experimentation? Keep an open mind—never alter results to fit a theory. Remember, if your results do not support your original hypothesis, you still have accomplished successful scientific research. An experiment is done to prove or disprove a hypothesis.

Presenting Your Project

How do I display my experiment or engineering project?

Most projects are displayed on top of a table. The display should show what you did, why you did it, the results, and what the results mean. The display should be done as simply as possible so it will be easy for the viewer to understand in a short time. You must also have material at your exhibit which document your experiment. This material can be notebooks that record the experiment, photos of the experiment in progress, or examples, sketches and photos of the equipment you used.

A top-notch science project includes four elements: Project Notebook, Abstract, Research Paper, and Visual Display

Project Notebook: Your project notebook is your most treasured piece of work. Accurate and detailed notes makes for a logical and winning project. Good notes will not only show your consistency and thoroughness to the judges, but will help when writing a Research Paper.

Abstract: When you finish your research and experiment, you should write an abstract. An abstract should include the purpose of the experiment and the procedures used, as well as the data and conclusions. You also may include any possible applications your research might have.

Research Paper: A paper describing your research is strongly encouraged, and should be displayed along with a Project Notebook, any necessary forms, or other relevant written materials. The idea behind writing a report is to organize your research on paper as well as in your mind, A good report includes eight sections. Most sections should be short, except for the discussion.

  1. Title Page. Center the project title, and put your name, address, school and grade at the bottom right.
  2. Table of Contents. Number each section when you finish writing.
  3. Introduction. This sets the scene for your report. The introduction includes your hypothesis and should explain what prompted your research and what you hoped to achieve. Refer to previous research as well a your own experiments.
  4. The Experiment. Describe in detail the methodology used to derive your data and observations. Your report should be detailed enough so that someone would be able to repeat your experiment just by reading your paper. Use photographs and drawing of you equipment to describe your experiment further.
  5. Discussion. The discussion is the meat of your paper. Your results and conclusions should flow smoothly and logically from your data. Be thorough. Take readers through your train of thought, letting them know exactly what you did. Compare your results with theoretical values, published data, commonly held beliefs and/or expected results. Also include a discussion of possible errors. How did the data vary between repeated observations of similar events? How were your results affected by uncontrolled events? What would you do differently if you repeated this project? What other experiments should be conducted?
  6. Conclusion. Briefly summarize your results. Be specific, do not generalize. Make sure not to introduce anything in the conclusion that you haven't already discussed.
  7. Acknowledgments. In your paper you should always credit those who helped you: people and institutions who gave their time, money, or materials so you could do your experiement.
  8. References. Your reference list should include material that is not your own (i.e., books, journal articles). See an appropriate reference in your discipline.

Visual Display: You want to attract and inform. Make it easy for interested spectators and judges to assess your study and the results you have obtained. Make the most of your space using clear and concise displays. Make headings stand out, such as Project Title, Main Objectives, Details of Experiments or Surveys, as well as your Results, Conclusions and Recommendations. Remember to draw graphs and diagrams clearly and label them correctly. You would be surprised how often visual aids are mislabeled, so pay careful attention.

Helpful Hints

Pick a Good Title. Your title is an extremely important attention-grabber. A good title should simply and accurately present your research. The title should make the casual observer want to know more.

Take Photographs. Many projects involve elements that may not be safely exhibited at the fair, but are an important part of the project. Several photographs displayed properly can convey the scope of your experiment and greatly enhance your exhibit by reducing the amount of text you must display. You might want to take photographs of important parts/phases of your experiment to use in your display.

Photographs or other visual images of human test subjects must have informed consent (consent form information).

Be Organized. Make sure your display is logically presented and easy to read. A quick glance should permit anyone particularly the judges) to locate quickly the title, the experiment, the results and conclusions. When you arrange your display, imagine you are seeing it for the first time.

Make it Eye-Catching. Make your display stand out but be careful not to clutter it up. Use neat, colorful headings, charts, and graphs to present your project. Home-built equipment, construction paper, and colored markers are excellent for project displays. Pay special attention to the labeling of graphs, charts, diagrams and tables. Each item must have a descriptive title. Anyone should be able to understand the visual aids without further explanation.

Arrange it Right, Build it Well. Be sure to adhere to the size limitations and safety rules when displaying your project. Display all the required forms for your project. Make sure your display is sturdy—it will need to hold up for quite a while. Do not hesitate to ask for advice from adults if you need it. (Remind your Adult Sponsor to check the display rules.)

What does a display look like?

Many displays are done with a backdrop on the table top to provide more room to show results of the experiment. The backdrop and table space must not be larger than allowed. The table space is 48 inches wide and 30 inches front to back. The fair will provide the table (which could be up to 36 inches off the ground). Make the backdrop only as tall as needed. An example backdrop would have a center section 30 inches wide and 48 inches tall. On each side of this are sections (wings) that are from 18 to 24 inches wide and 48 inches tall.

The wings are attached by hinges or some other manner that will allow the backdrop to fold so it can be carried. The backdrop can be painted or covered with cloth or paper so the exhibited material will stand out. The top of the table will be covered with white paper but you may cover that with something else if you wish. The display should be laid out so the viewer can scan the display and recognize all the elements of the exhibit clearly.

What do I do while I'm at my exhibit?


  • Be prepared to talk about the exhibit as if the viewer knows nothing about your experiment, they probably don’t.
  • Guide the judges through your display (experiment) as clearly as you can and then be prepared for questions that your display may not have answered for the viewer.
  • Remember: you are selling your exhibit to the public … and to the judges.
  • Do everything you can to make their viewing easy and enjoyable.


  • Don't do anything which will distract viewers from the exhibit.
  • Avoid using your cellphone.
  • Don't chew gum.
  • Don't read a book.
  • Don't listen to a radio, tape, MP3 player, etc.
  • Don't dress sloppily.
  • Don't sit facing the exhibit.
  • Don't mumble when you speak.
  • Don't let a crowd of students stand in front of your exhibit.

Just ask yourself this question, "Would I go up to an exhibit where the student looked and acted like me?"


Page last modified on April 26, 2011, at 12:12 AM

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