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Science Fair Standards

As a student's grade level increases, so do the expectations of what constitutes a competitive science fair project. Moving from a local to a state or national fair also increases expectations.

This table gives an idea of the level of work expected at different levels of competition.

Science Fair Standards Table

Science Fair Expectations Middle School Level (Grades 6-8) High School Level (Grades 9-12)
Aspect of the Project School Science Fair State Science Fair State Science Fair Intel Int'l Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF)
Topic
Overall, judges prefer a simple experiment wherein the Investigator displays complete mastery of the underlying theory and can thoroughly explain why the experiment turns out the way it does over a more sophisticated project that the student understands poorly.
 
  • Original scientific research rare at this age
  • OK to repeat an experiment first done 1, 10, or 100 years ago
  • Originality more often displayed in technique and presentation
  • Original research more common than at middle school level
  • Some projects done in a university research setting under a college professor
  • Majority of projects are original research
  • Many projects done in a university research setting under a college professor
  • 10-15% of participants file patents on their work
  • Many publish results in a scientific journal
Background Research
As the level of competition increases, judges expect, sources that are a bit beyond the Investigator's years, information that stretches his or her thinking, but not too far.  "...students are expected to have a thorough understanding of the work that they have done. The students must know why the experiments they have assembled and operated can provide the answers they seek."—CSSF
  • Encyclopedias
  • Books targeted at a middle school audience
  • Appropriate Web resources
  • Scientific American
  • American Scientist
  • High school textbooks
  • Appropriate Web resources
  • Research should be footnoted as appropriate
  • Scientific American
  • American Scientist
  • College textbooks
  • Scientific monographs
  • Peer-reviewed scientific journals
  • Appropriate Web resources
  • Research should be footnoted as appropriate
  • Scientific American
  • American Scientist
  • College textbooks
  • Scientific monographs
  • Peer-reviewed scientific journals
  • Appropriate Web resources
  • Research should be footnoted as appropriate
Math Content
The Research Paper and subsequent data analysis should contain all the relevant math that the Investigator is capable of understanding.
  • Basic graphs that show relationship between variables
  • Qualitative description of relationship between variables
  • Graphs that show relationship between variables
  • Quantitative statements about the relationships between variables (equations not generalities)
   
Experimental Procedures
The methodology and experimental design should be appropriate for the student's grade and discipline.
 
  • Experiments are appropriate to achieve the stated objective
  • The sample size and/or number of trials is sufficient to establish validity
  • The statistical analysis is appropriate for the students' grade and discipline
  Experimental procedures follow "best professional practices" typical of work to be published in a peer-reviewed journal
Display Board Standard display boards (36" x 48" folding to 36" x 24") available at most office supply stores Larger boards common Larger boards common Larger boards the norm, up to 48" wide by 108" tall.
Judging
The higher the level of competition, the more important the role of one-on-one interviews. Interviews are a highly effective means to ascertain the student's understanding of the work presented on the display board.
  • Generally based only on the project notebook and backboard
  • Interviews rare
One-on-one interviews by 5-10 judges key part of process One-on-one interviews by 5-10 judges key part of process
  • One-on-one interviews by 5-10 judges
  • If project done under the supervision of a professional research scientist, his/her written comments vitally important
Prizes Typically, school fairs award ribbons and certificates For the California State Science Fair:

1st Place award of $250
2nd Place award of $150
3rd Place award of $100

in each of 19 different subject categories.

Also various special awards.
For the California State Science Fair:

1st Place award of $500
2nd Place award of $250
3rd Place award of $125

in each of 15 different subject categories.

Also various special awards
Best of Category award of $5000
1st Place award of $3000
2nd Place award of $1500
3rd Place award of $1000
4th Place award of $500

in each of 15 categories.

Additional awards worth over $1.5 million include tuition scholarships, summer internships, scientific field trips, and laboratory equipment.

The top three students receive a $50,000 scholarship and a high-performance computer.