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Ask an Expert: Orientation Guide

Welcome Ask an Expert Volunteers!

You are among a virtual community of science professionals who will advise and inspire students to explore the applications of science and provide a glimpse into what a career in the sciences is like. Thank you for volunteering your time, enthusiasm, and experience.

This online Orientation Guide contains background, tips, and suggestions to help you optimize interaction with students. The guide has been updated with new information reflecting changes in our program for the 2011-2012 science fair season. It is important that all Experts, new and returning, review this material thoroughly.

There is a pledge at the end that you must acknowledge in order to complete your orientation and receive a volunteer assignment.

Surveys of past middle school participants showed that they turned to Science Buddies first for help over teachers and parents. Our Science Buddies volunteers really make a difference, and the orientation is intended to prepare you to be a great Expert for the students.

If you have any questions about the orientation, contact the Science Buddies Staff at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org. Let's begin!

Ask an Expert Online Orientation / Training Guide

Thank you for volunteering to help us with Ask an Expert. The Ask an Expert Program provides students with the opportunity to get answers to specific questions they have about their science projects from experienced high school students and professional scientists. This Orientation Guide contains background information, tips, and suggestions to help you optimize your interactions with students.

Table of Contents

Program Description
The Participants
Contacting Science Buddies
Getting Started as an Expert
Descriptions and Organization of the Forums
Your Role as a Science Ambassador
Your Responsibilities
Science Buddies' Standards for Helpful and Valuable Expert Replies
Getting Outside Help
Acquainting Yourself with Our Online Resources
Guidelines for Handling Inquiries
Mentoring in an Online Environment
Mentoring Tips
Understanding Your Audience
What to Expect from Students
General Information on Using the Forums
Subscribing to Topics and Forums
Posting Attachments in a Post
Understanding Timelines

Program Description

The Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forums offer personalized help to students who are working on a science fair project by providing an online environment where students can post questions about their projects and receive quality responses and advice from talented high school students and professional scientists in academia and various industries The Forums are available for questions regarding K-12 science fairs and science fair projects from all fields of science and engineering and are open to the public. The majority of people who use the Forums, however, are students. Approximately 30% of traffic on the Forums is from students in grades K-5, 40% is from students in grades 6-8, and 30% is from students in grades 9-12.

Experts point students in the right direction, give research advice, and help them refine and improve their experiments. The objective is for students to have more fun and less frustration as they complete their science fair projects, while getting the guidance and support that might not be available from their parents or teachers. The Ask an Expert forums also support the repository of over 1,200 science fair project ideas on the Science Buddies site giving students a resource for troubleshooting as they work through Science Buddies.

The Participants

We have recruited Experts from a wide variety of backgrounds, ranging from top high school students to seasoned science professionals. The level of "mentoring" experience held by our Experts varies—some of our Experts have volunteered with Science Buddies for numerous years, while for others this will be their first time volunteering on the Forums. Since our Forums are open to the public, you will be able to identify official Experts by the "Expert" tag that appears just beneath their username.

Moderators are seasoned Experts we have selected to help us ensure that the quality of the responses on the Forums remains high and that all inquiries receive a timely response. Moderators help ensure student posts are placed in appropriate forums (and are not cross-posted). Moderators also assist Science Buddies in monitoring the forums to ensure that our policies regarding personal information are upheld for the safety of all participants. Moderators also are on the look-out for spam (including URLs to personal sites or other advertising strategies). You can identify a moderator by the "Moderator" tag that appears just beneath his or her username.

Former Experts:
You might see posts made by users that have a "Former Expert" tag beneath their username. These posts were made by users who volunteered as Experts in years past, but are not doing so currently.

Students, Parents, and Teachers:
The Ask an Expert Program is designed primarily to benefit students. The Forums are open to the public, but most users are students. From time to time, parents will post questions on the Forums, asking for assistance as they help their students with their science fair projects. This most commonly occurs in the Grades K-5 Forums. Teachers also occasionally post questions on the Forums. These users do not have a tag beneath their names identifying them. However, you can determine whether a user is a student, parent, or teacher by the information provided on the right-hand side of a user's post. Student users, for example, will have "Student" listed as their occupation.

The Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forums are entirely open to the public, so sometimes, individuals who are not official Science Buddies Experts register and contribute their advice.

Screenshot of an expert posting on the Ask an Expert forum on the website ScienceBuddies.org

A screenshot of a post in the Ask an Expert forum on the website ScienceBuddies.org shows an Expert designation for a forum user. User information is visible on the right side of a forum post and tags of "Expert". "Former Expert" and "Moderator" can appear below a user's name.

The Ask an Expert forums are designed to offer support for K-12 science fair projects. From time to time, adult users or students working on graduate projects post questions beyond the scope of K-12 science fairs. Please simply reiterate that the forums are designed for K-12 support only.

Contact Science Buddies

The Science Buddies staff is always available to answer your questions. If you have a comment or concern you would like to address privately with Science Buddies, please email us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org. We will generally reply within 24 hours. Please do not hesitate to contact us. If you have questions you would like to raise about the Ask an Expert forums, about a specific topic or post, or if you require assistance from either Science Buddies representatives or from other Experts, posting in the "Expert Forum" is also a good approach. Both Science Buddies representatives and Experts monitor the Expert Forum and may be able to assist with your question.

Getting Started as an Expert

Once you have successfully completed this Online Orientation, you will need to register on the Ask an Expert Forums by visiting the Ask an Expert Board Index and clicking the "Log In" link at the top right of the page. (See the screen shot in the Descriptions and Organization of the Forums section.) After you have registered on the Forums, we recommend you take some time to look around and familiarize yourself with the AAE online environment.

Within 2-3 weeks of registering on the Forums, you will receive an email with your Forum schedule and assignment (a day of the week and a specific forum to check). Science Buddies will update your Ask an Expert account so that it shows you are an Expert or Mentor and so that you have access to the Expert forum. At that point, you can begin working with the students and responding to posts. Please keep in mind that all conversation and interaction with students will take place only on the Ask an Expert Forums. Please do not invite or encourage students to contact you via email outside of AAE. All communication must remain within the Ask an Expert forum.

Note for High School Experts: It is important to remember that you must be an active participant in the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Program to receive community service credit. An active participant is one who logs in regularly, checks the Forums, and responds to questions. The algorithm used to calculate your community service credit takes into consideration your active involvement in the forums. The only way to receive credit is to spend time reading posts and contributing to the forums by making thoughtful and thorough responses to student queries.

If you have any questions about how assignments to the Forums are made, or if you are unclear about your assignment, please do not hesitate to contact us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org.


When you applied with Science Buddies, you marked your preference for the day of the week you would like to cover and the grade range with which you feel most comfortable interacting. Based on your preferences, you will be assigned to respond to inquiries in a particular Forum on a particular day. You will be responsible for checking in at Ask an Expert and responding to any inquiries that are posted in your assigned Forum on your assigned day. For example, if you were assigned to check the K-5 Physical Sciences Forums on Monday, you would be responsible for logging into the Ask an Expert Forums every Monday and responding to any new topics or posts in that Forum.

In the past, Experts have been responsible for checking all grade levels in their assigned areas of science. For 2009-2010, we have changed the way we schedule experts. Please check only the specific forum (identified by both areas of science and grade range) to which you have been assigned. We have initiated this change to better utilize our team of volunteer experts and to make volunteering at Ask an Expert more rewarding for a larger number of volunteers.

Please be aware that given the high traffic we experience on Ask an Expert at peak points in the school year (and related to science fair dates and cycles), there may be multiple experts scheduled on each day of the week. Most likely, you are not the only expert logging into your forum, so don't be surprised if you find a new post has been responded to by another expert. You are still welcome to reply to the student's question, to add additional information to any expert reply already given, and to continue the thread. Students will benefit from the range of expertise that many experts bring to their projects. Be aware that it sometimes happens that an expert has been working with a student already and may check in and respond to a post on an unscheduled day.

Once the schedule is completed for the 2009-2010 science fair season, we will post it in the Expert Forum so that you can see which other experts respond to posts in the same forum as you and on what days each routinely checks in. This will help if you need to request backup coverage for travel or vacation or if you are looking for Expert assistance with a student topic or question.

If you will be unavailable (or have no Internet access) during one of your scheduled days, please make sure to post a note for your fellow Experts in the Expert Forum. For example, if you are going on vacation or on a business trip, provide your fellow Experts with the days of your absence in advance and make sure someone is able to cover for you. If no one is available, then please let us know at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org so we can make sure someone will cover for you.

It is important to remember that in order for the Expert Forum to work, you will need to check it regularly (every time you log in), to see if there are any requests for help that you may be able to answer. One easy way to see if there are any new posts in the Expert Forum is to subscribe to the Forum. For details on how to subscribe to a Forum, see the section Subscribing to Topics and Forums.

Descriptions and Organization of the Forums

To better help you respond to the questions posted on the Forums, we have organized the Forums in two ways: by grade level and by subject area. Because the nature of student questions as well as the content of Expert responses to a question will vary based on the grade level of the student asking it, we have divided the Forums into three sections: Grades K-5, Grades 6-8, and Grades 9-12. Within each of these divisions, we have further divided the Forums by area of science: Life, Earth, and Social Sciences; Physical Science; and Math and Computer Science.

Screenshot of the Ask an Expert forum on the website ScienceBuddies.org

A screenshot of the Ask an Expert forum on the website ScienceBuddies.org shows a log in link at the top-right of the page and a list of forum topics. The active forums on the index page are separated into categories by grade level, interview requests, careers in science and advanced science competitions.

The following are descriptions of the Forums that are visible to the public:

Please note that the Grades K-5, Grades 6-8, and Grades 9-12 Forums are further subdivided into Life, Earth, and Social Sciences; Physical Science; and Math and Computer Science Forums.

The following screen shot shows the main page of the Grades K-5 forum. Your volunteer assignment asks that you volunteer in one or more of these specific forums.

Screenshot of the Ask an Expert Grades K-5 forum on the website ScienceBuddies.org

A screenshot of subject specific posts in the Ask an Expert forum on the website ScienceBuddies.org highlights areas of interest on the forum. The page includes: a new topic button (above forum posts), an FAQ link (to the right of the forum post navigation bar), and a logout link (top-right of the page).

Remember that you will be responsible for answering the questions that come into your assigned Forum on your assigned day. See the Scheduling section for complete details about your assignment. As always, please feel free to contact us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org if you have any questions.

Your Responsibilities

Your Role as a Science Ambassador and as a Role Model

Your interest in and knowledge of science helps students see how exciting science can be. Please keep this in mind when talking with the students on the Forums. When appropriate, bring in examples from your work or research and help students see the practical applications of science. Real-world applications of science help make the abstract more relevant for students, and can spark new fascinations and curiosities about the world around them. As a role model, your general attitude will be more influential than anything you say, so stay positive about science in your interactions with the students.

Responding to Inquiries:
This is your opportunity to serve as a mentor to students, by sharing your knowledge and experiences with them. You should help them by answering questions, guiding them through key leverage points, reviewing their work, and offering tips and suggestions to help them improve their work. You are not alone, however! If there is anything you are uncertain about, or if you come across questions you cannot answer, there are plenty of other Experts to step in and help you out! At the end of this training guide, we have provided a number of examples of real posts that we have received on the Forums. We encourage you to take a look at these examples to get a sense of the types of questions posted on the Forums. As always, the Science Buddies staff is here to help and support you. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to email us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org.

"Topics" in the Forums:
The Forums have a standard way of listing each message topic that has been established. When a student posts an initial question on the Forums, they establish a "topic." While we encourage our experts to work together as a team and to add to the discussion that may arise with a student topic, if you are the first Expert to respond to a topic—and your response fits the Science Buddies' Standards for Helpful and Valuable Expert Replies— we want you to monitor the student's thread until its conclusion. This means that you should check to see if there are follow-up questions in the topic. As the first Expert to reply to the student's question, the student may reference you by name and may expect that you will be the Expert answering subsequent questions. When possible, we hope you can address follow-up questions throughout the week. Many topics will require a single answer, and the student will have gotten what s/he needed from Ask an Expert. Some topics, however, are more in-depth and require more back-and-forth between Expert and student as the student refines a project, works toward a stronger starting point, or works through problems encountered during the process.

Note: One way to monitor topics you are working with is to subscribe to them. See the section Subscribing to Topics and Forums for details on how to do this.

As you monitor topics with specific students, you may be posting messages on days other than the one you were assigned. Please continue to also check the Forums on your assigned day, as this ensures all messages receive a response in a timely manner. Our goal at Ask an Expert is to respond to all topics within 24 hours.

Screenshot of subject specific posts on the Ask an Expert Grades K-5 forum on the website ScienceBuddies.org

A screenshot of subject specific posts on the Ask an Expert Grade K-5 forum on the website ScienceBuddies.org show posted topics and announcements. An announcement section at the top of the page contains posts with important information. Topic posts below the announcements have locked posts at the top of the list and then are sorted by most recent at the top (dates and times are visible on the right side of a topic post). An orange notification icon will appear next to the title of topic posts if there are new posts made since the user's last visit.

Keeping Your Responses on the Ask an Expert Forums:
As we look at the number of people viewing posts on the Forums, it is evident that Ask an Expert is a valuable resource for students beyond those who actually originate the questions. Many students search the Forum posts for advice and tips about their own science projects – even if they don't register and don't ask their own questions. In order to maintain the integrity of Ask an Expert as a resource and to reach as many students as possible, we ask that you keep discussions only on the Forums. You should never shift conversations to the telephone, personal email, or instant messenger.

Keeping all conversations on the Forums is important not only to allow other students to benefit from this growing resource, but to protect the safety and privacy of the students. Science Buddies staff monitor the Forums to ensure that no personal information (e.g. telephone numbers, email addresses, chat or messenger names, etc.) is posted on the Forums and will remove such information if found. Experts who deliberately attempt to shift a conversation off the Forums may be asked to leave the program. If you discover an email address or personal contact information on the discussion board, please notify us immediately at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org so we can remove it.

If you have an external resource that could help answer a question (i.e. a co-worker or contact at another company), please have that person register on Ask an Expert and answer the question in the appropriate Forum. Alternatively, you may copy and paste an external resource's response into the Forums. See the section Getting Outside Help for more details.

Providing and Maintaining the Quality of Posts:
Ask an Expert has become a valuable resource for students conducting science fair projects, and we would like to ensure that the Program continues to be a high-quality resource. As you reply to posts, please keep in mind that this is your chance to share your knowledge, not only with the individual students posting the questions, but with others who have similar questions and are simply browsing the Forums for answers. To help us maintain the value of the Forums, we ask that you provide specific and detailed information and offer concrete answers, not just generic answers they could find on other websites or a bunch of links to other websites. Be thorough in your responses, adding any personal tips or experiences, and offer solutions to problems that will be useful for anyone else looking for similar information (see Examples 1.1 - 1.5 below).

While we have assigned each of our Experts a specific day to cover, you may sometimes find that someone else has answered a new post on the day you check in at Ask an Expert. If the topic is in your area of expertise, you have something to add to the discussion, or you feel the response did not adequately or thoroughly respond to the inquiry, please post a follow-up Expert response elaborating on the previous post (see Example 2 below). To determine whether a post is adequate, ask yourself "Is there anything else I would have said in response to this question?" Please remember to be respectful of your fellow Experts and others who post on our Forums.

Science Buddies' Standards for Helpful and Valuable Expert Replies

There are a number of important guidelines that we ask you keep in mind when responding to questions and topics at Ask an Expert:

  1. Remember that you are responding primarily to students. The tone of your replies needs to take into account the fact that the reader may be a student. We encourage you to be friendly in your replies. There are times when it is clear a student is overlooking something obvious or may be trying to find an easy answer. Please keep your tone friendly as you redirect and assist students.
  2. Talk at the right level for the student. Your responses should use vocabulary that the student can understand. If a student is already having problems with his or her project or area of research, sending a reply full of academic terminology or more appropriate for a scientific journal will likely not be helpful. One of the challenges of mentoring K-12 students is being able to take your expertise and formulate it so that a student at any level can understand and successfully move forward with his or her project.
  3. Read the student's post fully. A student who has arrived at Ask an Expert seeking science fair project help may have trouble articulating his or her question initially, or there may be many questions piled one on top of another in a student's post. Be sure and read carefully.
  4. Post thoughtful replies. Your reply to a student's question or post should indicate you fully read the question and that you are answering his or her specific question.
  5. Refrain from posting lists of links. We ask that you not simply post a list of links to materials from a search engine. Sometimes providing links is appropriate, but this should not be the standard approach to responding to questions. If you are redirecting a student to an external site or source, please try and also offer some "response" to the question. The goal of Ask an Expert is not simply to "search" for students.
  6. Use the Science Buddies website. In addition to over 1,200 science fair project ideas, Science Buddies offers a wide range of resources designed to give students the key information they need to work on a science fair project from start to finish. Before sending a student to another website, please check the Science Buddies site to see if a relevant resource exists.

    Note about Searching:

    • To search the entire Science Buddies website (including the Ask an Expert forums), use the search box that appears in the top right-hand corner of every page.
    • To search only within the Ask an Expert forums, use the search function found in the "Quick Links" drop-down box.
    • See the screen shot in General Information on Using the Forums.

  7. Be part of the "team" of Experts. When replying in a thread to which other Experts have also replied, be sure and acknowledge the fact that others have replied. You may not fully agree with an Expert's reply, or you may feel something has been left out that could be valuable to the student. Or, there may simply be many ways to answer the student's question. We encourage you to make additional posts, but it is important that interactions between Experts are handled professionally and with respect. This can be as simple as saying, "In addition to the advice offered by Expert J, I would encourage you to consider..." or "I would agree with what Expert M has suggested, but you might also want to..." This courtesy gives a more integrated feel to Ask an Expert and shows that Experts can and do work together as a team, listen to one another, engage in back and forth dialogue, and may have different opinions.

You will find other helpful reminders in the list of Mentoring Tips in this orientation guide.

Getting Outside Help

Sometimes you might be stumped by a post, but you know someone who could answer the question. If you find yourself in this situation, we ask that you do one of the following:

  1. Contact your friend or colleague to get the answer and then post it in the appropriate Forum yourself or
  2. Ask your friend or colleague to register with Ask an Expert and directly post a reply to the message.

Please remember to keep all discussions with students on our Forums. Another alternative is to post a topic in the Expert Forum asking that one of your fellow Experts respond to that query. For information about the Expert Forum and how to ask for help from fellow Experts through it, see the subsection Expert Forum within the Acquainting Yourself with Our Online Resources section.

Acquainting Yourself with Our Online Resources

We have developed a number of online resources to aid you as you work with students on the Forums. The following is a summary of resources we encourage you to use. You can access many of these resources by using the colored tabs located at the top of the Ask an Expert Forums. If you have questions about any of these resources, please do not hesitate to contact us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org.

Expert Forum
The Expert Forum is a place where the Science Buddies staff will keep you updated on information valuable to you in your role as an Expert. After you've been through orientation and officially assigned to an Ask an Expert forum, your status will be updated within Ask an Expert. At that point, you should have access to the Expert Forum once you log into the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Board Index (the Forum should appear directly beneath the Careers in Science Forum). Using the Expert Forum, you can communicate with your fellow Experts, flag any problems you encounter within the forums, keep up to date with any Science Buddies announcements or updates that may be relevant to volunteering in the forums, or contact Science Buddies staff and the Ask an Expert moderators. (Note: You will not have access to the "Experts" forum until we've classified your account as an "Expert" account and set you up with an official assignment. )

At times you may find yourself with a question that is difficult for you to answer or that lies outside of your expertise. You can request help from another Expert by using the Expert Forum. Our goal is to get the best possible answer for each of the questions posted in the Forums, so if you are in doubt about your ability to provide a thorough answer, post a message on the Expert Forum asking for help. When you post a message to the Expert Forum, you should note in the subject line the area of science for which you are seeking an Expert, so anyone scanning the Expert Forum can quickly see if his or her services are needed. Here is an example of a subject line: "Expert Needed in Biochemistry." You should provide the following information in the body of the post so the readers can easily find and reply to the inquiry: Forum Name, Topic, Date of Post, and a link to the topic. You are also welcome to consult outside sources, such as friends and colleagues. Please follow the guidelines provided in the section titled Getting Outside Help.

Science Fair Project Guide
We designed the Science Fair Project Guide to help students, parents, teachers, and Experts "refresh" their memories on the various steps in the scientific method and the pieces of a science fair project. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the Project Guide's contents, as it is a very useful tool for helping you answer general questions. Sections of the Project Guide contain:

Many times the information a student needs can be found in the Project Guide, and you can direct the student to the appropriate section of the Project Guide in your reply. (When referencing Science Buddies' projects or resources in your replies, please always include the appropriate urls so they can be easily accessed.)

Screenshot of the Ask an Expert Expert forum on the website ScienceBuddies.org

A screenshot of the Ask an Expert Expert forum on the website ScienceBuddies.org show posted topics and announcements. An announcement section at the top of the page contains posts with important information such as training materials. Topic posts below the announcements are for experts to ask fellow experts for advice or assistance.

Topic Selection Wizard
The Topic Selection Wizard (TSW) is an interactive tool that helps students narrow down their search for a science fair project idea. By having students answer a series of questions, the TSW identifies areas of science that a student will likely find interesting and then directs the student to Project Ideas in those areas of science. This is a great tool you can reference for students who post the inevitable question about having trouble finding a project idea.

Project Ideas
Science Buddies has a library containing more than 1,200 science fair Project Ideas that students can use as the basis for their projects. The Project Ideas are sorted by area of science and graded by difficulty level. Each Project Idea lists the amount of time the science project may be expected to take, the cost of materials required for the project, prerequisites needed to complete the project, and potential safety concerns. Contained in each Project Idea is an introduction; a list of terms, concepts, and questions to guide the student's background research; a short bibliography; a list of materials; a detailed procedure; and suggested variations that could be made to the basic Project Idea.

We strongly recommend that you spend some time familiarizing yourself with the Project Ideas that are related to your particular area of science. For details about using our library of Project Ideas to help you respond to student inquiries, please see the subheading Very Specific Questions about a Science Fair Project or Some Aspect of Science in the section Guidelines for Handling Inquiries.

Note: If as you review our library of Project Ideas or respond to questions on the Forums, you discover a specific problem with one of our Project Ideas, please notify us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org so that we can evaluate the problem and revise the project idea, if necessary. The feedback we receive from AAE regarding individual project ideas helps us ensure our library of project ideas is up to date.

Science Careers
Science Buddies recently launched its Science Careers section. Students working through a Science Buddies science fair project idea can click through to learn more about a relevant science-related career. The career profiles offer salary information, education requirements, links to videos and interviews, and additional background information.

Expert Newsletter
Approximately once a month, you will receive an email newsletter that we send to all Ask an Expert volunteers. In this newsletter, we will post tips and "best practices" for working with Ask an Expert and responding to student inquiries. We will also pass on information regarding important science dates or updates to Science Buddies' materials that may prove helpful in composing your responses.

Guidelines for Handling Inquiries

Ask an Expert is not intended to be "Ask Jeeves," nor is it intended to help lazy students with their Internet searches. The goal of this program is to help students who have specific questions about their projects. We highly value the time that you are contributing to the Ask an Expert Forums, so we have developed some guidelines to help you understand how to answer various types of questions that will be appearing on the Forums. We have provided a number of examples to help you get a sense of the different types of questions you may be asked and how to effectively respond to them. These examples are referred to in the following sections and can be found at the end of this training guide. If you are ever in doubt about how to respond to a particular post, remember that you can always post a topic in the Expert Forum asking for assistance, or email us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org.

General Questions About Picking a Project Topic:
If the inquiry is very vague, such as, "What should I do for my science fair project?", please direct the student to the Topic Selection Wizard on our website, including the link in your reply (see Example 3). If the inquiry is more specific (e.g., asking for help formulating a proposed question into a good experiment, or whether or not a proposed topic makes a good experiment), then by all means offer them some help and guidance. Our Project Guide section is always a good resource to help you answer these types of questions. For example, if a student were to ask something like "Is my hypothesis good?", you might take a few moments to read through his or her hypothesis, make comments on it, provide the student with a link to the "Hypothesis" section of the Project Guide, and encourage the student to use the checklist to self-evaluate/grade him- or herself and post back with any questions.

General Inquiries About Information Readily Available in An Encyclopedia or Through a Simple Google Search:
If a question is something simple like, "What is friction?", please first do a search on the Science Buddies website using the search box located at top right of all pages to see if we have relevant resources or Project Ideas that offer background information on the specified topic or area of science. If Science Buddies' materials are available, please note these in your reply and include the urls. In addition (or if there are no Science Buddies' resources available), you may offer a definition and a few links from a Google search or a few offline resources (such as encyclopedias) where the student can find additional information about his or her question.

You may also encourage the student to try his or her own Google search (see Example 4). We ask that you use your best judgment to determine how to answer inquiries of this kind. You are welcome to answer them how you see fit, but we want you to be aware that we prefer that you spend your time on questions that are more specific and that really utilize your knowledge, rather than whose answers can be found easily in an encyclopedia or by a simple online search.

General Inquiries About Science Fair Project Steps or How to Approach a Project:
Again, direct the student to the appropriate section of the Science Fair Project Guide and include the link in your reply. You can access the Project Guide from any page on our website by clicking the "Project Guide" link in the navigation bar at the top of the page.

Very Specific Questions About a Science Fair Project or Some Aspect of Science:
This is where we would like you to spend most of your time—working to help students get answers to specific questions. If there is an inquiry that is outside of your area of expertise and you do not feel comfortable answering it, then please post a message on the Expert Forum, as discussed in the section Acquainting Yourself with Our Online Resources, under the subheading Expert Forum. When responding to inquiries, please make sure you explain your answers thoroughly, explain with simple terminology, and offer links where the student can find the answer himself or herself. If there are safety precautions with a particular experiment, please make sure to mention them in your reply (see Example 5 below). Remember that the replies you make to posts are read and used by many more people than those who post the question.

Students often post questions on the Ask an Expert Forums about specific experiments or project ideas, asking for help troubleshooting a problem or interpreting their data. Some of the questions that are posted on the Ask an Expert Forums may be specifically about one of our Project Ideas. Even if the student is not explicitly using a Science Buddies Project Idea, one of our projects may be similar enough to the student's own that you could refer to it to offer some guidance.

As you respond to students' posts regarding a specific experiment or project idea, we strongly suggest that you do the following:

Trash Entries:
As with any discussion board, we occasionally have individuals post random "trash" (or spam) entries. If you encounter any of these, please contact us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org and we will remove them from the board.

Remember that if you ever have any questions about using the board, you can consult the FAQs, which are accessible through the Board Index. If you are unsure how to respond to a query, you can post a topic in the Expert Forum to that effect (see the section Acquainting Yourself with Our Online Resources under the subheading Expert Forum). And, as always, you are welcome to contact us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org with any problems, questions, concerns, or suggestions that you may have.

Mentoring in an Online Environment

Communicating via online message boards can be tricky. Think carefully about what you write. It is always difficult to communicate through written words alone since there are no additional signs, such as tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language to help someone interpret what you are saying.

Mentoring Tips

Understanding Your Audience

When responding to inquiries, one of the most important points to keep in mind is your audience. Are you responding to a question from a parent? A question from a teacher? A question from a student? The type of response you may give to a question is strongly dependent upon who asked it. Consider the following:

Always remember that if you are ever unsure about how to answer a post, you can always post a topic in the Expert Forum asking for advice or assistance. See the section Acquainting Yourself with Our Online Resources under the subheading Expert Forum. As always, the Science Buddies staff is here to help and support you. If you ever have any questions or concerns, do not hesitate to contact us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org.

What to Expect from Students

Elementary School, K-5: While the exact purpose of a science fair project varies from teacher to teacher, students doing projects in elementary school (grades K-5) are often primarily doing them to discover that science can be fun and exciting, and also to gain a better understanding of the basic steps of the scientific method. Because getting students excited about science is a goal of many younger students' science fair projects, it is critical that as an Expert you do not squash that interest and curiosity by bogging students (and parents) down in technical details and theoretical intricacies, but rather, explain relevant concepts in simple, easy-to-understand terminology. The table at the end of this section will help you understand what students at different grade levels are expected to know.

Middle School, 6-8: The goal of doing a project for a middle school student (grades 6-8) is still to help the student become interested in science, but the projects are also intended to help the students learn the details of the scientific method and gain scientific knowledge. Appropriate experimental design, accurate data, basic data analysis, and a grade-appropriate understanding of the basic scientific principles behind their projects are expected.

High School, 9-12: For a high school student (grades 9-12), technical rigor is emphasized even more. The students' projects should be thoughtful, well designed, critically analyzed, and the scientific theories and principles that govern their projects should be well understood. The students' use of the scientific or engineering method should be thorough and clearly evident.

A grade-appropriate understanding of the scientific principles behind a student's project is expected for all projects. You must, therefore, customize your responses to questions based on the grade level and maturity of the student. Consider the classic baking soda and vinegar experiment. A grade-appropriate understanding for a 3rd-grade student might be that when the baking soda and vinegar mix, a chemical reaction happens that makes a gas. For a 7th-grade student, a grade-appropriate understanding might (1) recognize that vinegar is diluted acetic acid and baking soda is mostly sodium bicarbonate (2) the baking soda and vinegar experiment is really a two-step chemical reaction, and (3) the gas produced by the reaction is carbon dioxide. A grade-appropriate understanding for a 12th-grade student might consist of all the elements of the previous explanations, as well as the ability to write out the chemical formulas for the reactions, give the chemical names for all of the reactants and products, classify the reactions by type, and be able to do stoichiometric analysis of their particular experiments and the reactions in general.

Not all students are on par for their grade level. Some will be more advanced; others will be far behind. As you mentor through the Forums, you may encounter some high school students who can work on a university-level project and understand the science behind it. You may also encounter a high school student who needs things explained at a 6th-grade level. Getting a feel for the kind of science background a particular student has might be difficult at times, but doing so will make the mentoring experience more enjoyable for yourself and more beneficial for the student.

This table (based on California standards) is an attempt to summarize a typical middle school student's educational preparation. Students in a remedial situation will obviously be below these guidelines, while high school students should (but may not) surpass them. Links to standards in other states appear below the table.

Some highlights:

Clearly, the Science Buddies experience, in addressing these important aspects of learning, will be a key component of the student's education.

  6th Grade Curriculum (or beginning 7th Grade) 7th Grade Curriculum (or beginning 8th Grade) 8th Grade Curriculum (or beginning 9th Grade)
Science Content Focus on Earth Science
  • Plate Tectonics and Earth's Structure
  • Shaping Earth's Surface
  • Heat (Thermal Energy)
  • Energy in the Earth System
  • Ecology
  • Resources
Focus on Life Science
  • Cell Biology
  • Genetics
  • Evolution
  • Earth and Life History
  • Structure and Function in Living Systems
  • Physical Principles in Living Systems
Focus on Physical Science
  • Motion
  • Forces
  • Structure of Matter
  • Earth in the Solar System
  • Chemical Reactions
  • Chemistry of Living Systems
  • Periodic Table
  • Density and Buoyancy
Investigation & Experimentation Students able to:
  1. Develop a hypothesis.
  2. Select and use appropriate tools and technology (including calculators, computers, balances, spring scales, microscopes, and binoculars) to perform tests, collect data, and display data.
  3. Construct appropriate graphs from data and develop qualitative statements about the relationships between variables.
  4. Communicate the steps and results from an investigation in written reports and oral presentations.
  5. Recognize whether evidence is consistent with a proposed explanation.
  6. Read a topographic map and a geologic map for evidence provided on the maps and construct and interpret a simple scale map.
  7. Interpret events by sequence and time from natural phenomena (e.g., the relative ages of rocks and intrusions).
  8. Identify changes in natural phenomena over time without manipulating the phenomena (e.g., a tree limb, a grove of trees, a stream, a hillslope).
Students able to:
  1. Select and use appropriate tools and technology (including calculators, computers, balances, spring scales, microscopes, and binoculars) to perform tests, collect data, and display data.
  2. Use a variety of print and electronic resources (including the World Wide Web) to collect information and evidence as part of a research project.
  3. Communicate the logical connection among hypotheses, science concepts, tests conducted, data collected, and conclusions drawn from the scientific evidence.
  4. Construct scale models, maps, and appropriately labeled diagrams to communicate scientific knowledge (e. g., motion of Earth's plates and cell structure).
  5. Communicate the steps and results from an investigation in written reports and oral presentations.
Students able to:
  1. Plan and conduct a scientific investigation to test a hypothesis.
  2. Evaluate the accuracy and reproducibility of data.
  3. Distinguish between variable and controlled parameters in a test.
  4. Recognize the slope of the linear graph as the constant in the relationship y = kx and apply this principle in interpreting graphs constructed from data.
  5. Construct appropriate graphs from data and develop quantitative statements about the relationships between variables.
  6. Apply simple mathematic relationships to determine a missing quantity in a mathematic expression, given the two remaining terms (including speed = distance/time, density = mass/volume, force = pressure x area, volume = area x height).
  7. Distinguish between linear and nonlinear relationships on a graph of data.
Math By the end of grade six, students have acquired the following math skills:

Basic Math
  • Mastered addition, subtraction, multiplication and division with whole numbers, positive fractions, positive decimals, and positive and negative integers
  • Compute and solve problems
Statistics and Probability
  • Understand the concepts of mean, median, and mode of data sets and how to calculate the range
  • Analyze data and sampling processes for possible bias and misleading conclusions
  • Use addition and multiplication of fractions routinely to calculate the probabilities for compound events
  • Conceptually understand and work with ratios and proportions; compute percentages (e.g., tax, tips, interest).
  • Solve one-step linear equations
  • Know about pi and the formulas for the circumference and area of a circle
  • Use letters for numbers in formulas involving geometric shapes and in ratios to represent an unknown part of an expression
By the end of grade seven, students have acquired the following math skills:

  • Know the Pythagorean theorem and solve problems in which they compute the length of an unknown side.
  • Compute the surface area and volume of basic three-dimensional objects and understand how area and volume change with a change in scale.
  • Are adept at manipulating numbers and equations and understand the general principles at work.
  • Understand and use factoring of numerators and denominators and properties of exponents.
  • Make conversions between different units of measurement.
  • Know and use different representations of fractional numbers (fractions, decimals, and percents) and are proficient at changing from one to another.
  • Increase their facility with ratio and proportion, compute percents of increase and decrease, and compute simple and compound interest
  • Graph linear functions and understand the idea of slope and its relation to ratio.
Symbolic reasoning and calculations with symbols are central in algebra. Through the study of algebra, a student develops an understanding of the symbolic language of mathematics and the sciences. In addition, algebraic skills and concepts are developed and used in a wide variety of problem-solving situations.
Writing (Research & Techniques)
  1. Use organizational features of electronic text (e.g., bulletin boards, databases, keyword searches, e-mail addresses) to locate information.
  2. Compose documents with appropriate formatting by using word-processing skills and principles of design (e.g., margins, tabs, spacing, columns, page orientation).
  1. Identify topics; ask and evaluate questions; and develop ideas leading to inquiry, investigation, and research.
  2. Give credit for both quoted and paraphrased information in a bibliography by using a consistent and sanctioned format and methodology for citations.
  3. Create documents by using word-processing skills and publishing programs; develop simple databases and spreadsheets to manage information and prepare reports.
  1. Plan and conduct multiple-step information searches by using computer networks and modems.
  2. Achieve an effective balance between researched information and original ideas.
Writing (Research Reports) Able to write research reports of 500-700 words (1-2 typed pages):
  1. Pose relevant questions with a scope narrow enough to be thoroughly covered.
  2. Support the main idea or ideas with facts, details, examples, and explanations from multiple authoritative sources (e.g., speakers, periodicals, online information searches).
  3. Include a bibliography
Able to write research reports of 500-700 words (1-2 typed pages):
  1. Pose relevant and tightly drawn questions about the topic.
  2. Convey clear and accurate perspectives on the subject.
  3. Include evidence compiled through the formal research process (e.g., use of a card catalog, Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, a computer catalog, magazines, newspapers, dictionaries).
  4. Document reference sources by means of footnotes and a bibliography
Able to write research reports of 500-700 words (1-2 typed pages):
  1. Define a thesis.
  2. Record important ideas, concepts, and direct quotations from significant information sources and paraphrase and summarize all perspectives on the topic, as appropriate.
  3. Use a variety of primary and secondary sources and distinguish the nature and value of each.
  4. Organize and display information on charts, maps, and graphs.
Write technical documents:
  1. Identify the sequence of activities needed to design a system, operate a tool, or explain the bylaws of an organization.
  2. Include all the factors and variables that need to be considered.
  3. Use formatting techniques (e.g., headings, differing fonts) to aid comprehension.

More on Educational Standards:

California www.cde.ca.gov/standards/
New York usny.nysed.gov/teachers/nyslearningstandards.html
Oregon http://www.ode.state.or.us/search/results/?id=22
Virginia www.pen.k12.va.us/VDOE/Superintendent/Sols/home.shtml


  1. Examples of good, thorough responses to a post on the Forums.

    Example 1.1

    Author Message
    Student Posted: 30 Dec 2003 04:46 pm   Post subject: Brine shrimp
    I need some help with the most basic part of my science fair project. I am going to study the effect of pH on the growth/life of brine shrimp. I have some good help in the basic process, but am unsure how many brine shrimp I should use in each pH solution. Are there any suggestions/ideas I can get from the Experts? I am not sure if I could get some help on this. Thanks.
    Expert Posted: 01 Jan 2004 02:46 am   Post subject: Re: Brine shrimp

    In general, the bigger the sample size, the better.

    One possibility would be to start with a large number of brine shrimp for just 3 pH levels at extreme values. (One at very high pH, one medium pH, and one at very low pH). The results of this first run can then help you decide how many brine shrimp to use.

    This assumes you have time to do more than one "run" for the experiment.

    I did a Google search and found this site on statistics and number of samples:


    Look at:

    • Statistical significance and the number of analyses performed
    • Why significance of a relation between variables depends on the size of the sample
    • Example: "Baby boys to baby girls ratio"
    • Why small relations can be proven significant only in large samples
    • Can "no relation" be a significant result?

    Good luck and let us know if you have more questions.

    Example 1.2

    Author Message
    Student Posted: 07 Jul 2004 12:42 am   Post subject: The sun's reaction
    I am searching for a hypothetical way to accelerate the reaction of the Sun. I know it sounds moronic, but any information would be helpful. Thank you in advance for your assistance in this matter.
    Expert Posted: 13 Jul 2004 12:35 am   Post subject: Re: The sun's reaction


    This is a very interesting question. Basically, you are looking for ways to speed up the nuclear fusion reactions in the Sun (fusing hydrogen to make helium). Here are some websites that may be of interest to you:


    In addition, you can easily find more information on nuclear fusion reactions in the Sun by doing a Google search using that phrase or similar wording.

    Give it a try and let me know if you discover anything interesting!

    Example 1.3

    Author Message
    Student Posted: 23 Feb 2005 11:11 pm   Post subject: How to use Standard Deviation results
    The project is to determine if background stimuli affect performance on a math test. The 50 math problems are the same on all tests. The environment changes (music, TV, silence). The MEAN values are 24.71, 20.03, and 22.36. The STANDARD DEVIATION values are 9.78, 10.12, and 8.71. I am not sure what to do with these values. There are terms I have read about, but do not understand if they apply to my project. For instance, do I want to find if I have STATISTICAL SIGNIFICANCE? Do I want to find what is the STATISTICAL CORRELATION of the tests? And if I do, how do I do it?
    Expert Posted: 24 Feb 2005 10:12 am   Post subject: Re: How to use Standard Deviation results


    Great to see someone concerned with doing statistics correctly on a science fair project! Sounds like the start of a great report.

    I think "statistical significance" is a good keyword to describe what you're after. Some other keywords you may find useful are "student's t test" and "significance test."

    Basically, the question you want to ask (or at least one of the questions you can ask) is "what are the chances that you could get differences as big as the ones you saw if the environmental changes had *no* real effect on test scores." The answer won't be zero. Since there's some scatter in test scores, even without changing conditions, there's always going to be some chance that what you've observed is just a coincidence. The value of 1 minus the chance that what you've seen is a coincidence is generally considered an estimate of how likely it is the differences you've seen are real. Often that's called a "confidence level." Someone will say, for example, "the results are significant at the 95% confidence level," meaning that there's less than a 5% chance that the differences were just a coincidence.

    (A subtle point that you can probably ignore: what that result actually tells you is the chance that *something* was different. Whether or not the different thing is what you are interested in depends on how well the experiment was designed.)

    There are a few different approaches one can take to trying to answer that question. The usual method is to assume (or show) that the variation in scores on tests under a single condition are Gaussian. (If it isn't clear what that means, you can probably skip it for now. "Gaussian distribution" and "probability density function" or "Gaussian pdf" are good keywords for more info if you have time and interest.) Assuming that condition is satisfied, which is often true, then you can apply some cookbook statistics formulas to estimate the chances that the differences observed are real. There are some tests best suited to small data sets, which are probably most appropriate for your experiment.

    I'm sure I or someone else here can offer some more tips to get you started if you find it hard to know where to begin. There are also a number of good books on the subject, which you might be able to find in a local library. It would probably help to know what math class you're in and how long you have to work on the project, so as to recommend suitable material.

    Good luck!

    Example 1.4

    Author Message
    Student Posted: 01 Nov 2003 02:35 pm   Post subject: Global warming effects on the coast line of Florida State

    I am in this moment working on my project and I would like to know how can I demonstrate the sea level rising using a model of the State (based on a relief map of 36x 40 inches) and knowing that the level can be raised by the global warming 8 to 30 inches in ten years) I am thinking about using a block of ice and warming it and conducting the melted water to a tank with the model of Florida, but I am not sure how I can translate this process to correspond to the scale of my model of Florida State. Can you help me? Please!

    Expert Posted: 04 Nov 2003 05:31 am   Post subject: Problems of Scaling

    The highest point in Florida is 345 feet above sea level and the average elevation is about 100 feet. Let's say that your scale model exaggerates the height and makes the highest point about 1 inch (most relief maps I've seen make the highest point about 1/2 inch or so). At that scale, a 12-inch rise in sea level would only be 0.0029 inch on your map (scale of 1 inch/345 feet x 1-foot rise = 0.0029 inch). I'm sure that the map itself has an inaccuracy much greater than 0.0029 inch, not to mention that such a small change in the water level would be invisible.

    I can think of two possible solutions:

    1. Simply color in the areas that would be affected, or
    2. Don't use a map of the entire state; instead do a model of a much smaller region (say an important bay or coastal area) where the highest point is much lower than the 100-foot average for the state. Consequently, the scale rise in sea level could be a much larger number than the value for the state as a whole.

    Example 1.5

    Author Message
    Student Posted: 15 Jan 2005 02:51 pm   Post subject: Different boiling points of water?
    Why does tap water boil faster than distilled or bottled water?
    Expert Posted: 17 Jan 2005 04:57 pm Post subject: Re: Different boiling points of water

    In my experience, you would usually see the opposite effect. Usually the distilled or bottled water would boil faster than the tap water. The reason for this is what is called boiling point elevation. Boiling point elevation occurs when there are dissolved minerals in the water. Distilled water usually has some of the mineral impurities removed and so you would expect it to boil at exactly 100 degrees C. Tap water is more likely to have dissolved minerals, unless you have some sort of water purifier attached to your tap that can remove them. Therefore, normal tap water should boil at a higher temperature than distilled water.

    There are several websites you can check out to learn more about boiling point elevation.


    You can also just type it into Google yourself.

    It sounds like you might need to check your starting conditions for your experiment. Unless all of your water samples started at the same temperature, one might boil in less time than another, but still be at a higher final temperature. You also need to make sure that you use exactly the same pot on exactly the same burner with exactly the same amount of water under exactly the same conditions to be able to compare two different types of water. It sounds like you measured the amount of time it took to boil the water. It might be more accurate to use a thermometer to measure the temperature of the boiling water in each case to see if there was any difference.

  2. A good example of adding on to a post.
    Author Message
    Student Posted: 07 Oct 2004 03:15 am   Post subject: balloon volume

    How do you measure the volume of a balloon? Anyone?

    Teacher Posted: 07 Oct 2004 08:02 am   Post subject:


    Hi! Displacement method is usually used in measuring the volume of objects having irregular shapes! Hope it helped. Julie

    Expert Posted: 07 Oct 2004 11:17 pm   Post subject: Measuring the Volume of a Balloon

    Just in case you aren't sure what the displacement method is, the first thing is to get two buckets (one should be able to fit inside the other with 5-7 cm to spare). Then stack the buckets so that the small one is inside the larger one. Then fill up the small bucket to the brim with water. Fill it as full as possible, as this will give more accurate results. Then, submerge the balloon in the water. Collect the water that spills out of the small bucket with the large bucket. Then measure the volume of the water the balloon spilled out of the bucket. It's that easy!

  3. A good example of responding to "what should I do for my science fair project?"-type questions.
    Author Message
    Student Posted: 14 June 2008 6:16 am   Post subject: Science Investigatory Project

    What could be a good problem in a Science Investigatory Project?

    Expert Posted: 14 Jun 2008 8:57 am    Post subject: Re: Science Investigatory Project

    Welcome to the Ask an Expert Forums. If you go up to the top left-hand portion of this screen, you'll see a link called, "Science Fair Project Ideas." If you click on this link, you'll find many good examples of problems and ideas for science fair projects.

    In general, a good science fair problem can be answered by an experiment you have the ability to do. It should also interest you—that will make it much more fun for you to do and the judges will notice it.

    Hope that helps!

  4. A good example of responding to a question that could be answered by a simple Google search.
    Author Message
    Student Posted: 15 Feb 2008 10:32 am   Post subject: If plants grow faster or slower without microorganisms

    What is Macronutrients and Micronutrient? What does soil contain?

    Expert Posted: 15 Feb 2008 12:39 pm    Post subject: Re: If plants grow faster or slower without microorganisms

    Macronutrients and micronutrients are nutrients that plants need in order to grow (just like people need certain vitamins and minerals to be healthy, so do plants). Macronutrients are those that the plant needs a lot of (macro means "big" or "large"). Micronutrients are those that plants require small quantities of (micro means "little" or "small"). According to a listing on the website of the University of Wisconsin, Macronutrients: N, K, Ca, Mg, P, and S, and Micronutrients: Cl, Fe, B, Mn, Zn, Cu, Mo, and Ni. (http://www.soils.wisc.edu/~barak/soilsc ... cronut.htm).

    Soil is actually quite complicated. As a general definition, soil is consists of weathered rock, material from the atmosphere, decaying plants, animals, and microbes.

    These sites provide useful information about soil: http://school.discoveryeducation.com/sc ... ures/soil/ and http://www.epa.gov/gmpo/edresources/soil.html.

    Both of these sites were returned by a simple Google search. Try one of your own and you will discover many more useful websites. Let us know what you find out!

  5. If there are safety concerns with the experiment, please include them in your reply.
    Author Message
    Student Posted: 25 Oct 2003 05:49 pm    Post subject: How well does antibacterial soap work?

    I want to do a science fair project on how well antibacterial soaps really work. I talked to a doctor who said I would need to use agar (spelling?) dishes for the experiment. I am not sure what that equipment is or how to get it. He said I should use sterile swabs to take the bacteria off my hands and plate it in the dish. Then I should wash my hands with one of the soaps and use a sterile swab to take what bacteria is still on my hands and put that in the agar dish. He was not sure if I would need some way to incubate the dishes for the bacteria to grow. Do I need to? I would repeat the process for each type of antibacterial soap. I would count the bacteria colonies that grow to tell which soap works the best. Is this the best way to go about this experiment? Where do I get the equipment that I need? Thanks.

    Expert Posted: 27 Oct 2003 07:30 pm   Post subject:


    A biology teacher helped me prepare this response.

    I found a description of how to investigate whether coins are covered with germs. That's pretty close to what you're interested in doing, and I'm sure you could modify the procedure to fit your idea. You can find the description here: http://www.science-projects.com/BBMicro-Coins.htm AND this same website also has some information on agar plates (you spelled it correctly!) http://www.science-projects.com/NAplates.htm.

    Your science teacher may have the supplies you need. Check with him or her first. (In fact, you should do this experiment at school under your teacher's supervision. See the note about safety below.)

    You can either make your own agar plates using powdered agar, or buy them ready to go. You'll see two companies that carry supplies for doing microbiology experiments on our Science Fair Supplies and Materials page, Carolina Biological Supply Company and Science Kit and Boreal Laboratories: http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-far-projects/project_supplies.shtml.

    AN IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT SAFETY: You might have a small number of harmful bacteria on your hands that your body's natural defenses can defeat without trouble (even if you put your fingers in your mouth). However, when you "culture" bacteria on an agar plate, you multiply their numbers by many thousands. It's possible that you could get a "colony" of pathogenic bacteria that would be too many in number for your body's defenses, creating the risk that you could get ill if you did not follow the proper safety procedures. The Intel International Science & Engineering Fair specifically prohibits studies involving pathogenic agents or potential pathogenic agents in the home environment. The Illinois State Science Fair bans all projects that take bacteria samples from the body. In almost every science fair you would need to have your project approved by a Scientific Review Committee (SRC). See http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_src.shtml for more details. The bottom line is that you should definitely check the rules your science fair follows before you proceed with this experiment.

    Good luck with your project!

  6. A good example of responding to a question from a parent.
    Author Message
    Parent Posted: Thu Mar 27, 2008 5:49 am    Post subject: Capillary action and temperature

    My daughter (1st grade, 7 years old) wanted to investigate capillary action for her science fair project. She decided to find out whether temperature affects capillary action in carnations. We put three white carnations in three glasses of red water and put one in the oven at 140 degrees F, one in the refrigerator, and one on the kitchen counter (air temp about 68 degrees F). The carnation in the oven turned completely pink in about 3 hours, then the stem collapsed. The one on the kitchen counter was edged in red in about 5 hours, but 10 hours after that (15 hours after the experiment began) the room-temp carnation has not changed much. The one in the fridge has hardly any red on it at all. We'll have to check the flowers again this afternoon, but I suspect that the two remaining ones will still be white with red edging. I think my daughter can conclude that she found that temp does affect the speed of the capillary action. But one question I can't answer is why the carnation in the oven turned uniformly pink, whereas the other two seem to be just getting edged in red. I do have a theory that it might have to do with the oven drying the carnation out, but I really am not sure...

    Thanks in advance for helping me help my daughter.

    Expert Posted: Thu Mar 27, 2008 9:57 am    Post subject: Re: Capillary action and temperature

    Welcome to the Ask an Expert Forum. Those are very interesting results, and a great way for your child to learn about physical and biological sciences. Ideally, you would want to use three or more carnations in each temperature condition, but maybe that would be overkill for a 1st-grade project. Let's assume that the results you saw would be the same in any number of trials. The possible responses to temperature that could affect your results include:

    • physical processes affecting transport of water & dye
    • biological processes affecting the uptake and redistribution of water due to transpiration through active plant tissues.

    Specifically, I can imagine that the pink vs red coloring could be affected by higher rates of diffusion at higher temperature, or more uniform transpiration across the surface of the petal as the plant tries to cool itself by opening more stomata. There might also be physical changes to the plant structure and redistribution of the dye due to desiccation, as you mentioned.

    Here are a couple of web pages describing the response of plant and flower transpiration to temperature changes:

    • http://www.actahort.org/members/showpdf ... rnr=624_57
    • http://books.google.com/books?id=03S6Vb ... n#PPA84,M1

    I hope that helps. Good luck!

    Parent Posted: Thu Mar 27, 2008 11:12 am    Post subject: Re: Capillary action and temperature

    Thank you! That is such a big help!

    Expert Posted: Thu Mar 27, 2008 12:35 pm    Post subject: Re: Capillary action and temperature

    Great! Good luck with the project! Please let us know if you have any more questions.

  7. A good example of responding to a post by a teacher.
    Author Message
    Teacher Posted: Tue Jan 22, 2008 8:14 pm    Post subject: Chemical or physical change?

    Is the production of "Silly Putty" an example of a chemical or physical change? I've done reading on this...some sites seem to say that the production is the result of mixing/linking of the substances. On the "science-house.org" site, their directions list it as a chemical change. If it is a chemical change, does anyone know the equation? If I'm using polyvinyl acetate (white school glue) and starch....and/or using Borax/water mixture + glue--> silly putty. Is it really a new compound—or is it a mixture (colloid). Thanks. I hate giving out wrong information to my students.

    Expert Posted: Tue Jan 22, 2008 11:09 pm    Post subject: Re: Chemical or physical change?

    From the silly putty frequently asked question page (http://www.sillyputty.com/silly_science ... e_faqs.htm), only the words mixed and mixture of "boric acid and silicone oil" are used. On the other hand, the science-house page that you mention (http://www.science-house.org/CO2/activi ... putty.html) clearly mentions that there are both physical and chemical changes.

    So your instinct that a chemical change is involved appears to be correct. I suspect that the formula for the making of silly putty is contained in the patent for silly putty. Unfortunately, all the online databases with patent information appear to be for-profit sites. Maybe you know an attorney who has access to these sites or a fellow Expert can help.

    Teacher Posted: Wed Jan 23, 2008 8:42 am    Post subject: Re: Chemical or physical change?

    Thank you for taking the time to check into this. I'm not looking for the Silly Putty chemical reaction formula—but rather the chemical formula for the "recipe" on your site. 50/50 water & polyvinyl acetate + Borax solution--> "slime/putty". This would show whether or not a physical or chemical change has taken place, correct? My guess is that it is a chemical change—but the silly putty website is what made me question my assumptions. I have some VERY bright kids that ask great questions—and I prefer to give them correct answers—or at least good sources to find those answers!!

    Expert Posted: Wed Jan 23, 2008 10:50 am    Post subject: Re: Chemical or physical change?

    This topic deals with a gray area between the "major" scientific disciplines. It may be too advanced for some 6-8th graders to consider that our definitions of "chemistry" and "physics" can overlap, but this project is a pretty good example. The description from the science house page is: "The borax is called a cross-linker. It chemically "ties together" the long strands of the polyvinyl acetate."

    The term "cross-linker" does belong to chemistry, but doesn't that description about tying things together sound suspiciously physical? These sorts of gray areas fall into scientific disciplines like "physical chemistry" or, less commonly, "chemical physics." "The distinction between [chemical physics and physical chemistry] is vague, and workers often practice in each field during the course of their research." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemical_physics) So the bad news is that there is not a definitive answer to your question of whether this is physics or chemistry. Maybe the good news is that students will be intrigued to hear about this "gray area" of science and to consider what other gray areas might exist.

    As far as a chemical formula, this is not a straightforward chemical reaction like "4Fe + 3O2 -> 2Fe2O3". It is typically represented with diagrams. For an example and for advanced discussion of this reaction, see pages 12-16 in http://dwb4.unl.edu/chem_source_pdf/POLY.pdf. You can find much more info by searching for "gluep".

    Good luck!

    Teacher Posted: Wed Jan 23, 2008 10:05 pm    Post subject: Re: Chemical or physical change?

    Thanks, everyone! I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't have a definitive answer. I have discussed "gray areas" with the students—actually part of why we "study" Silly Putty!! Is it an amorphous solid...or a slow-moving liquid? (They need to answer that and support their answer with the vocabulary and observations they have made—middle-schoolers love to argue—so the idea of gray areas is perfect!!) In our text we are covering "solids, liquids, gases". Under solids—crystalline and amorphous solids are introduced. We grow Borax crystals and review a bit of earth science for the first...and then spend a few days on "the most famous amorphous solid"—Silly Putty. They actually produce 2 types—one using the directions on this site...and another using liquid starch and glue. The students then design labs to product test (elasticity, resilience, viscosity). I love this site for explaining "variables" to them (which is how I ended up using this feature—I was revisiting the site to review your articles on that topic and noticed the "Ask an Expert" feature).

    Up to this point, my lab experiences are very guided—this is the first time they will actually write their own from start to finish. It's a good preview of what they will do during their independent science projects later this year. (Which is when I really use your site!!) Our first step was to do some background research—in the form of a guided reading packet that I have compiled from the sillyputty.com site, and others. I challenge them to go online to that site so they can take the quiz and earn their "Masters in Silly Putty" certificate that they print out and bring in for extra credit.

    Later, we do a small unit on materials science...and will re-visit this topic of polymers.

    Thanks for all of your help...the kids thought it was "cool" that I had "asked an Expert" about what we were doing!!

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