Formulating your Research Question:
What topics interest you as a student of science? Growing things? (Biology!) Blowing up things? (Chemistry!) Increasing the size or speed of an object? (Physics!) How the earth is formed and changes over time? (Geology and Earth Science!)
For the Science Fair, students often design an experiment to answer a question. That question will evaluate the effect that an independent variable has upon an dependent variable. The experimental question will resemble the following model: How does ___ affect ___ ?
Answering that experimental question will likely help the student better understand a bigger OVER-ARCHING question of science:
- Why do people and things behave as they do?
- How can human behavior /choices/ perceptions/ be influenced by the conditions we put them in?
- How do “the laws of nature” make behavior of things predictable?
- How do physical forces influence objects (for example, their motion in space, their shape or their volatility?)
- How do we impact the growth/survival/behavior of plants by changing the conditions we put them in?
- How can the properties of matter be changed by their interaction with other matter… perhaps over varying lengths of time, or due to the re-arrangement of their atoms?
Generating a very long list of questions about the topic can feed the researcher the specific scientific search terms that produce good background information to explain to the audience. Providing good definitions and explaining the make-up of the materials, the scientific concepts, how your equipment works and the safety hazards is valuable in writing the introduction and procedures sections of a project.
Conducting Background Research:
(Cite your sources using APA guidance, or MLA guidance according to your teacher’s instructions. Gather URLs and citations as you take your notes. Many researchers use reference sources as they begin a project. Here’s why.)
Students will conduct background research to understand how an experiment that they conduct relates to greater laws of nature. Many scientists explore and provide background about what scientists ALREADY KNOW about the materials that they are testing. Then they can make a hypothesis that predicts the outcome of their own experiment. They’ll test their hypothesis by applying the scientific method, and report their outcome. The following tips help you find “search terms” to apply as you conduct online searching.
- Take time to formulate your over-arching question and hypothesis.
- Decide which SCIENCE SUBJECT terms your question relates to: Botany? Physics? Chemistry? Human Behavior? Geology? Psychology? (Target your search for information to sources that specialize in that SUBJECT. See images below.)
- Generate a list of scientific terms that relate to the behavior you want to study: motion? choices? taste? perception? temperature? a process like melting, growth, or decomposition and decay? If you get stuck, brainstorm with learning partners or an adult! Librarians can really help! Plus, you’ll notice the tags in database research help you find RELATED SUBJECTS to consider using in searches.
- Do you need to provide any useful definitions to your audience? Do you need to provide explanations of the make-up of the material you are studying?
- Do you need to know (or explain to your audience) how any lab instruments work?
- Take the above search terms into one of the library’s science databases to learn more. If your search yields too many results, combine them in an “advanced search.” Learn what scientists have already proven about such behavior or the conditions you wish to apply to your experiment. See if you can hypothesize about cause and effect.
- (Hint: you might need investigate what science already knows about how OTHER OBJECTS–not the object you are testing– have behaved in slightly different conditions in order to make a prediction about how your experimental materials will interact. So, think broadly.)
- For High Schoolers only: more tips.
Reference Books — explore Dewey Decimal #500’s and 600’s. Bright orange stickers mark our exceptional reference books. Sign out reference books for 24 hours only, please. They are in high demand.
Dewey Decimal #507 is the call number in our print collection where you find most books with Science Fair Project ideas and the methods that scientists use to conduct measurements (and other cool procedures) in their experiments. More are sprinkled around the 500’s and 600s. Reading the Mythbusters books that we loan can inspire you, too.
- World Book (use “student” or “advanced”) – this is middle schooler’s best resource when beginning.
- Britannica (Human Studies/ Consumer Science researchers might enjoy reading the “Animal Behavior” article to consider stimulus and response)
- Gale “Science in Context” – this is high schooler’s best resource when beginning.
- Inside the Gale Virtual Reference Library, browse the “Science” and “Medicine” categories for specialized reference books.
- Teen Health and Wellness
- Academic One File (inside the GALE databases) – includes journal articles for advanced learners. Use “Advanced Search.”
- JSTOR provides access to seminal research and historically important research articles. For advanced learners.
- Science Friday – podcasts
- Listen or read the transcript and see if you can determine the independent and dependent variables in this experiment: Sleep More, Sneeze Less: Increased Slumber Helps Prevent Colds . It is also helpful to listen for the kinds of information the research team provided as “background research” that establishes the RELEVANCE of the study to real life.
Recommended Internet Sources:
- Science Buddies
- Science Friday – “Educate” section
- New Scientist
- Scientific American – (ask librarian for password to online edition)
- EurekAlert – breaking news in science (advanced) link
See also the Public Library’s Science Databases and tips for Science Fair
When searching with broad terms in a database, combine your terms with the Boolean Operator “AND” in all caps. Some search engines support Boolean searching in their “advanced search” menu.
For Science Fair “background research,” begin in a reference source and search for the field of study AND the dependent variable
As you become more creative, focused and flexible with your search terms, adjust the Boolean Operators (#1 and 2) as well as the options in #3-7 to broaden or narrow your search findings on the “Advanced Search” screen.
Tip: Be very careful with the settings in 3-5 because the default settings probably need your adjustment.