How To Select A Topic For Your Science Fair Project

Dr. D. Helmeste, November 2020.

Daiga Helmeste, PhD, is a well-established Psychiatry & Human Behavior, School of Medicine Professor and also a teacher at the OCSEF Academy. We asked her guidance on things to keep in mind when choosing a research topic for a science fair project.

The Orange County Science and Engineering Fair is a highly recommended county science fair opportunity for Orange County precollege students. It is affiliated with ISEF (Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair), which means that high school students also have the opportunity to move on to this highly prestigious multi-national science fair as well. In choosing a science fair project for an OCSEF competition, it is therefore worthwhile to put a lot of effort into choosing a suitable research topic.

Doing research projects at regulated research institutes (RRI; universities, government labs) is a wonderful opportunity when considering a research career. However, there is not always an exact match between university research rules and projects allowed to enter OCSEF. For example, BSL-3 level projects at universities are not allowed to enter OCSEF/ISEF. Therefore, the student and his/her supervisor must read OCSEF/ISEF rules carefully, before designing a science fair project.

Scale and Cost of Your Project

OCSEF/ISEF rules allow certain continuation projects but not necessarily long-term studies which last for more than two years. This also must be taken into consideration when choosing a project to work on. Will my project give interesting results in a few months or a few weeks? ….. Or, are several years required before conclusions can be drawn? Do I need expensive laboratory equipment for my project, or is it something that I can do on my own without extra help or lab equipment from other people?

Even university labs do not always have all the lab equipment needed for their projects. They may have to collaborate with other universities or use group-shared equipment that their school lends to members of their department. Chemical reagents often need to be ultra-pure chemicals. Water has to be pure distilled water, not tap water for many procedures. Custom- synthesized peptides can be very expensive to buy…..for example, it could cost more than one hundred dollars for a small, hard-to-see speck of custom-synthesized peptide in a test tube.

Then you may need a micro-balance (not a gram scale balance) for weighing portions of these materials. So proper planning and understanding what the $ budget limit is, are “must do” at the very start of your project. WHERE can I do my project? WHAT equipment/supplies (if any) are needed? WHAT is my $ budget? WHAT is the time-frame for my project? (Can I complete it in time for the OCSEF submission deadline)?

Background Reading

Background reading when choosing a research project is very important. PubMed is useful for searching research results published by university-level researchers. Scitable by Nature Education presents useful research summaries suitable for AP high school and undergraduate college students. Scientific America highlights a wide variety of research topics of interest to the general public. The OCSEF website lists many other useful resources as well.

From a subject of interest to a science fair project

Example of how I approach my science fair topic of interest: One of my current research interests is: “How an octopus camouflages itself in its natural environment”. I am really fascinated by the fact that an octopus can sit next to a rock underwater and change its skin coloring to make itself look like part of the rock, thus fooling predators.

Besides being a very unusual “talent” to have, I can see that the general principles of this behavior could be applied to camouflaging humans or their equipment when landing in dangerous territory. There are several different types of science fair projects that could come out of this.

1. I could do an engineering project which “mimics” the octopus (no live octopus or aquarium needed here…..just a lot of background reading on other people’s research…..and perhaps a talent in computer programming). 2. I could study a live octopus (need aquarium, sea water and food for the octopus). However, I have read that octopuses are “incredibly intelligent and seem to easily get bored”. They are also expert escape artists (Inky, an octopus at New Zealand’s National Aquarium, was reported to have escaped his enclosure during the night through a small opening. He slid across the floor, squeezed his body through a narrow pipe and escaped into the ocean, according to National Geographic Magazine). My $ budget for keeping an octopus at home may not be high enough. Also, if they like escaping, do I need a spare octopus “just in case”?

Perhaps, studying an octopus at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is a more practical solution? They accept precollege students for certain types of research projects. Would they be agreeable to remote (video camera) or in-person studies? If I decide to contact them, I need to have a clearly thought-out research plan to show them at the very beginning.

In the meanwhile, I have discovered that frozen octopus is available in certain local grocery stores. Would microscope analysis of real octopus skin be useful at all? Again, back to my on-line research reports. If I don’t have enough time this year to do this project before the OCSEF submission deadline, I will definitely save this project idea for next year!