All About Science Fairs: Project Ideas and Opportunities for STEM Students

Participating in a science fair is often a stepping stone to a career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.
Marcia Wendorf
Kids in a science fairmonkeybusinessimages/iStock

May might be the month where "April showers bring May flowers," but it's also the month in which science fair season ends. Science fairs are hosted by schools and organizations worldwide, and their distinguishing feature is that in their projects, students employ the scientific method to test a hypothesis.

The seven steps of the scientific method are:

  • Ask a question
  • Perform research
  • Establish a hypothesis
  • Test the hypothesis by conducting an experiment
  • Make an observation
  • Analyze the results and draw a conclusion
  • Present the findings

Science fairs got their start in 1942 when William Emerson Ritter and Edward W. Scripps created "The Science Talent Search" for high school students. Science fairs exploded in popularity during the 1950s as there was a renewed focus on science following the popularity of television, and during the nuclear arms race and the space race.

Science fair projects
Science fair projects. Source: US Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Many science fairs include mentors from nearby colleges and universities, and this may be the first time that students are exposed to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects on a professional level.

The Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair

This granddaddy of science fairs is one of the world's largest competitions for ninth through 12th graders. It is owned and administered by the Society for Science, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. Between 1997 and 2019, the fair was sponsored by the Intel Corporation, and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals took over sponsorship in 2020.

Due to COVID, the ISEF fairs in 2020 and 2021 were conducted virtually.

Every year, around 7 million pre-college students from over 75 countries participate in ISEF regional, district, and state ISEF-affiliated science fairs. Then, every May more than 1,800 students from roughly 70 countries and territories compete for scholarships, tuition grants, internships, and prizes that include:

  • The Gordon E. Moore Award - a $75,000 scholarship with the Best of Category award winners in contention; the winner is selected based on how innovative their research is and the potential impact of the project on its field and the world as a whole.
  • Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award - a $50,000 scholarship presented to two Best in Category projects. 
  • Dudley R. Herschbach SIYSS Award - an all-expense-paid trip to the Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar, and attendance at the Nobel Prize ceremonies.
  • Intel Best of Category Awards - $5,000 scholarship given to category winners, with their school and the science fair they represent also receiving $1,000 each.

Additionally, the National Security Agency, the Association for Computing Machinery, the IEEE Foundation, and the Patent and Trademark Office Society present special awards. As an added bonus, since 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory has named newly-found asteroids after ISEF winners.

In 2021, the 21 ISEF categories were:

  • Animal Sciences
  • Behavioral and Social Sciences
  • Biochemistry
  • Biomedical and Health Sciences
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Cellular and Molecular Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computational Biology and Bioinformatics
  • Earth and Environmental Sciences
  • Embedded Systems
  • Energy Sustainable Materials and Design
  • Engineering Mechanics
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Materials Science
  • Mathematics
  • Microbiology
  • Physics and Astronomy
  • Plant Sciences
  • Robotics and Intelligent Machines
  • Systems Software
  • Translational Medical Science

ISEF is judged by scientists and engineering and industry professionals, and the fair is considered to be a powerful pipeline for talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Notable people who have won an ISEF award include:

  • Richard Zare 1957 - American chemist who won the National Medal of Science in 1983
  • James Gunn 1957 - astronomer and MacArthur Fellow who won the National Medal of Science in 2008
  • Paul Modrich 1964 - American biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2015
  • Susan Solomon 1972 - atmospheric chemist who won the National Medal of Science in 1999
  • Dianne Newman 1987 - microbiologist
  • Feng Zhang 2000 - CRISPR researcher
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 2007 - United States Congresswoman
  • Alex Deans 2013 - inventor

The 2021 ISEF, which just concluded, had the following big winners:

  • $75,000 George D. Yancopoulos Innovator Award went to Michelle Hua, Cranbrook Kingswood School, MI, USA for "Dilated Silhouette Convolutional Neural Network: A Novel Deep Learning Framework for Real-time Human Action Recognition"
  • Regeneron Young Scientist Awards of $50,000 each went to Catherine Kim, Jericho High School, NY, USA for "Novel Prediction of Adverse Drug Reactions and Underlying Pathological Mechanisms via Hierarchical Classification" and to Daniel Shen, William G. Enloe High School, NC, USA for "Development of an AI-Powered Facial-cue Control Module"
  • Gordon E. Moore Award for Positive Outcomes for Future Generations award of $50,000 went to John Benedict Estrada, Clovis North High School, CA, USA for "Development of a Novel AI Drought-Stress Assessment (AIDA) Model in Bell Pepper (Capsicum annuum) Plants Using a Custom-Built Robotic RGB + Infrared (IR) Camera"

Science fair projects

Seven colors of a rainbow
Seven colors of a rainbow. Source: Eric Rolph/Wikimedia Commons

Younger students naturally ask questions such as, "Why is the sky blue?" "Why do clouds move?" "Why does a rainbow have seven colors?" Answering those kinds of questions can make a terrific science fair project and your student will have a better science fair experience if they investigate something they are genuinely interested in.

Most Popular

Topic areas include astronomy, aviation, biology, botany, chemistry, computers, earth science, electricity, engineering, the environment, genetics, math, psychology, sports, or zoology.

Popular books on science fair projects include topics such as:

  • Evaluating Peak Load and Noise Pollution in Different Types of Asphalt (Environmental Science)
  • The Chladni Effect: Is there a Relationship Between the Frequencies Produced and Patterns Created Using Bowed Plates of Various Metals? (Physics)
  • Can Mosquitoes Be Safely and Effectively Eliminated Through Identifying The Variables that Attract Them (Behavioral Science)
  • Does Coating Metals Prevent Their Corrosion?: A Study of the Effect of Corrosion on Metals in Different Environments (Environmental Science)
  • Do Aluminum Pots, Pans, and Foil Leach Aluminum to Acidic Foods Cooked in These Mediums (Chemistry)
  • What Is the Growth Rate of Mold Among Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrate Food Products (Microbiology)
  • Does Cooking Fruits and Vegetables Deplete Their Vitamin C Content (Biochemistry)

To find a science fair near you, the Physics Department at the University of Southern California maintains a list of local science fairs.

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