Key InfoBackground research is necessary so that you know how to design and understand your experiment. To make a background research plan — a roadmap of the research questions you need to answer — follow these steps:
- Identify the keywords in the question for your science fair project. Brainstorm additional keywords and concepts.
- Use a table with the "question words" (why, how, who, what, when, where) to generate research questions from your keywords. For example:
What is the difference between a series and parallel circuit?Throw out irrelevant questions.
When does a plant grow the most, during the day or night?
Where is the focal point of a lens?
How does a java applet work?
Does a truss make a bridge stronger?
Why are moths attracted to light?
Which cleaning products kill the most bacteria?
- Add to your background research plan a list of mathematical formulas or equations (if any) that you will need to describe the results of your experiment.
- You should also plan to do background research on the history of similar experiments or inventions.
- Network with other people with more experience than yourself: your mentors, parents, and teachers. Ask them: "What science concepts should I study to better understand my science fair project?" and "What area of science covers my project?" Better yet, ask even more specific questions.
Why the Need for Background Research?
So that you can design an experiment, you need to research what techniques and equipment might be best for investigating your topic. Rather than starting from scratch, savvy investigators want to use their library and Internet research to help them find the best way to do things. You want to learn from the experience of others rather than blunder around and repeat their mistakes. A scientist named Mike Kalish put it humorously like this: "A year in the lab can save you a day in the library."
Background research is also important to help you understand the theory behind your experiment. In other words, science fair judges like to see that you understand why your experiment turns out the way it does. You do library and Internet research so that you can make a prediction of what will occur in your experiment, and then whether that prediction is right or wrong, you will have the knowledge to understand what caused the behavior you observed.
Making a Background Research Plan: How to Know What to Look For
When you are driving a car there are two ways to find your destination: drive around randomly until you finally stumble upon what you're looking for OR look at a map before you start. (Which way do your parents drive?)
Finding information for your background research is very similar. But, since libraries and the Internet both contain millions of pages of information and facts, you might never find what you're looking for unless you start with a map! To avoid getting lost, you need a background research plan.
The place to start building your background research plan is with the question for your science fair project (see, we did that first for a reason). Let's imagine that you have asked this one:
Question: Does drinking milk help decrease spiciness better than water or Pepsi?
Begin by identifying the keywords and main concepts in your question. In this case keywords would be:
That's pretty easy! Now, what might be some of the main concepts that relate to these keywords? Let's think about spiciness first. You're going to do a science experiment, so knowing that a spicy food tastes "hot" is probably not sufficient. Hmmmm, this is a little tougher than finding the keywords.
Question Words Table
The secret is to use the "question words" (why, how, who, what, when, where) with your keywords. Ask why things happen, ask how things happen, ask what causes things to happen, ask what are the properties of key substances. Filling in a little table can help. Let's do it for our keyword spiciness:
|Question Word||Fill Your Keywords (or Variations on Your Keywords) into the Blanks|
These are just samples to get you thinking; there are always many more questions and the most important ones for your project may not be in the list!
|Possible Questions for Background Research||Relevant?|
|Why||Why does ________ happen?|
Why does ________ ________?
|Why does spiciness happen?|
Why do spicy foods taste hot?
|How||How does ________ happen?|
How does ________ work?
How does ________ detect ________?
How does one measure ________?
How do we use _________?
|How does the tongue detect spiciness?|
How does one measure spiciness?
|Who||Who needs ________?|
Who discovered ________?
Who invented ________?
|Who needs spiciness?||No|
|What||What causes ________ to increase (or decrease)?|
What is the composition of _________?
What are the properties and characteristics of ________?
What is the relationship between _______ and ________?
What do we use ________ for?
|What causes spiciness to increase (or decrease)?|
What are the properties and characteristics of spicy substances?
|When||When does ________ cause ________?|
When was _______ discovered or invented?
|When does spiciness cause upset stomachs?||No|
|Where||Where does ________ occur?|
Where do we use ________?
|Where in the body does spiciness occur?||Yes|
Those look like pretty good questions to research because they would enable us to make some predictions about an experiment. But what's that column in the table called "Relevant?"
You can always find more information to research, but some questions just don't have anything to do with the experiment you will define and perform. Questions that will help you design and understand your experiment are called relevant. Questions that will not help you design and understand your experiment are called irrelevant. Our table of question words is a great way to generate ideas for your background research, but some of them will be irrelevant and we just throw those out. Some of those irrelevant questions might be very interesting to you; they just don't belong as part of your science fair project. We have to focus our efforts on what we feel is most important, or another way of looking at it, let's not spend time researching anything we don't need to. (I'm sure you have other things you'd like to do, too!)
For a good example of how the question word table can generate irrelevant questions, let's just look at some possible questions if we fill out the table for another one of our sample keywords: milk.
- Why does milk happen?
- How does milk happen?
- Who needs milk?
- What causes milk to increase (or decrease)?
- What is milk composed of?
- What are the properties and characteristics of milk?
- Where does milk occur?
If we research every one of those questions we'll be studying farms, cows, cow udders, baby cows, and what cows eat. Holy flying cows! That information is definitely irrelevant to our science fair project question: Does drinking milk help decrease spiciness better than water or Pepsi?
Even so, in that crazy list of cow science, there are two questions that look relevant for your background research:
- What is milk composed of?
- What are the properties and characteristics of milk?
Sometimes you won't be sure whether a question is relevant or not, and that's always a good time to get the opinion of more experienced people like your mentors, parents, and teachers. In fact, the background research plan is a very important step of your science fair project and two or three heads are always better than one! Even with all that help, you may not be sure whether something is relevant until after you have done your experiment, so don't let it bother you if that's the case.
Talk to People with More Experience: Networking
As you can see with the two above examples, spiciness and milk, the question word table will work better for some keywords than others. You might have a science fair project question where none of the keywords generate relevant questions. Yikes! What do you do then?
One of the most important things you can do is talk to other people with more experience than yourself: your mentors, parents, and teachers. This is called "networking." Some of these people will have had classes or work experience that involved studying the science involved in your project. Ask them, "What science concepts should I study to better understand my project?" Better yet, be as specific as you can when asking your question. Even experts will look puzzled if you ask a question that is so generic it leaves them pondering where to start. Instead of asking, "How do airplanes fly," try asking, "What physical forces are involved in the flight of an airplane," or "What role do propellers play in the flight of a helicopter?" (After all, there's gotta be something that causes that hunk of metal to go up, right?)
For example, let's imagine your science fair project question is: Does the velocity of a roller coaster car affect whether it falls off a loop? If you ask someone who has studied physics in high school or college, they will tell you to ask the research question, "What is centripetal force?"
Sometimes there is even a specialized area of science that studies questions similar to the one for your science fair project. Believe it or not, there are actually people who study "roller coaster physics." (Is that a cool job or what?) Often a good topic for your background research is simply the specialized area of science that covers your project. For the roller coaster example you would research "roller coaster physics."
How do you find the area of science that covers your project? You guessed it, network with your mentors, parents, and teachers. And by the way, networking is something many adults don't expect students to be very good at, so you can probably surprise them by doing a good job at it! The very best networkers, of course, enjoy the spoils of victory. In other words, they get what they want more quickly, efficiently, and smoothly.
The reality is we have all networked at some point in our lives. Remember how you "networked" with your mom to buy you that cool water gun, or "networked" with your grandpa to buy you that video game you always wanted? Well, now you are "networking" for knowledge (which is a very good thing to network for, by the way). Train yourself to become a good networker, and you might just end up with a better science fair project (and don't forget that you'll get a little smarter too in the process). So take our advice: work hard, but network harder.
Are You Doing an Engineering or Programming Project?
If you are doing an engineering or programming project that involves designing or inventing a new device, procedure, computer program, or algorithm, then be sure to check out the Science Buddies resource The Engineering Design Process. You should have some special questions in your background research plan.
Sample Background Research Plan
Background research plan for the science fair project question: Does drinking milk help decrease spiciness better than water or Pepsi?
Research questions —
- Why do spicy foods taste hot?
- How does the tongue detect spiciness?
- How does one measure spiciness?
- What causes spiciness to increase (or decrease)?
- What are the properties and characteristics of spicy substances?
- Where in the body does spiciness occur?
- What is the composition of milk, Pepsi, and water?
- What are the properties and characteristics of milk, Pepsi, and water?
Science concepts and/or areas of science —
Background Research Plan WorksheetHere's a Background Research Plan Worksheet to help you develop your own plan.
Background Research Plan Checklist
|What Makes a Good Background Research Plan?||For a Good Background Research Plan, You Should Answer "Yes" to Every Question|
|Have you identified all the keywords in your science fair project question?||Yes / No|
|Have you used the question word table to generate research questions?||Yes / No|
|Have you thrown out irrelevant questions?||Yes / No|
|Will the answers to your research questions give you the information you need to design an experiment and predict the outcome?||Yes / No|
|Do one or more of your research questions specifically ask about any equipment or techniques you will need to perform an experiment? (if applicable)||Yes / No|
|If you are doing an engineering or programming project, have you included questions from Engineering & Programming Project Tips?||Yes / No|
Reference ListEngle, Michael. (2003, May 20). The Seven Steps of the Research Process. Cornell University Library. Retrieved September 22, 2003, from http://www.library.cornell.edu/okuref/research/skill1.htm
- As you do your research, follow your background research plan and take notes from your sources of information. These notes will help you write a better summary.
- The purpose of your research paper is to give you the information to understand why your experiment turns out the way it does. The research paper should include:
- The history of similar experiments or inventions
- Definitions of all important words and concepts that describe your experiment
- Answers to all your background research plan questions
- Mathematical formulas, if any, that you will need to describe the results of your experiment
- For every fact or picture in your research paper you should follow it with a citation telling the reader where you found the information. A citation is just the name of the author and the date of the publication placed in parentheses like this: (Author, date). This is called a reference citation when using APA format and parenthetical reference when using the MLA format. Its purpose is to document a source briefly, clearly, and accurately.
- If you copy text from one of your sources, then place it in quotation marks in addition to following it with a citation. Be sure you understand and avoid plagiarism! Do not copy another person's work and call it your own. Always give credit where credit is due!
- Most teachers want a research paper to have these sections, in order:
- Title page (with the title of your project, your name, and the date)
- Your report
- Check with your teacher for additional requirements such as page numbers and a table of contents
Year after year, students find that the report called the research paper is the part of the science fair project where they learn the most. So, take it from those who preceded you, the research paper you are preparing to write is super valuable.
What Is a Research Paper?
The short answer is that the research paper is a report summarizing the answers to the research questions you generated in your background research plan. It's a review of the relevant publications (books, magazines, websites) discussing the topic you want to investigate.
The long answer is that the research paper summarizes the theory behind your experiment. Science fair judges like to see that you understand why your experiment turns out the way it does. You do library and Internet research so that you can make a prediction of what will occur in your experiment, and then whether that prediction is right or wrong, you will have the knowledge to understand what caused the behavior you observed.
From a practical perspective, the research paper also discusses the techniques and equipment that are appropriate for investigating your topic. Some methods and techniques are more reliable because they have been used many times. Can you use a procedure for your science fair project that is similar to an experiment that has been done before? If you can obtain this information, your project will be more successful. As they say, you don't want to reinvent the wheel!
If these reasons sound to you like the reasons we gave for doing background research, you're right! The research paper is simply the "write-up" of that research.
Special Information to Include in Your Research Paper
Many science experiments can be explained using mathematics. As you write your research paper, you'll want to make sure that you include as much relevant math as you understand. If a simple equation describes aspects of your science fair project, include it.
Writing the Research Paper
As you read the information in your bibliography, you'll want to take notes. Some teachers recommend taking notes on note cards. Each card contains the source at the top, with key points listed or quoted underneath. Others prefer typing notes directly into a word processor. No matter how you take notes, be sure to keep track of the sources for all your key facts.
How to Organize Your Research Paper
The best way to speed your writing is to do a little planning. Before starting to write, think about the best order to discuss the major sections of your report. Generally, you will want to begin with your science fair project question so that the reader will know the purpose of your paper. What should come next? Ask yourself what information the reader needs to learn first in order to understand the rest of the paper. A typical organization might look like this:
- Your science fair project question or topic
- Definitions of all important words, concepts, and equations that describe your experiment
- The history of similar experiments
- Answers to your background research questions
When and How to Footnote or Reference Sources
When you write your research paper you might want to copy words, pictures, diagrams, or ideas from one of your sources. It is OK to copy such information as long as you reference it with a citation. If the information is a phrase, sentence, or paragraph, then you should also put it in quotation marks. A citation and quotation marks tell the reader who actually wrote the information.
For a science fair project, a reference citation (also known as author-date citation) is an accepted way to reference information you copy. Citation referencing is easy. Simply put the author's last name, the year of publication, and page number (if needed) in parentheses after the information you copy. Place the reference citation at the end of the sentence but before the final period.
Make sure that the source for every citation item copied appears in your bibliography.
Reference Citation Format
|Type of Citation||Parenthetical Reference |
MLA Format (Author - page)
|Reference Citation |
APA Format (Author - date)*
|Work by a single author||(Bloggs 37)||(Bloggs, 2002)|
|Direct quote of work by single author||(Bloggs 37)||(Bloggs, 2002, p. 37)|
|Work by two authors||(Bloggs and Smith 37)||(Bloggs & Smith, 2002)|
|Work by three to five authors|
|(Kernis, Cornell, Sun, Berry, and Harlow 183-185)||(Kernis, Cornell, Sun, Berry, & Harlow, 1993)|
|Work by three to five authors|
|(Kernis et al., 1993)|
|Work by six or more author||(Harris et al. 99)||(Harris et al., 2001)|
|Two or more works by the same author in the same year (use lower-case letters to order the entries in bibliography)||(Berndt, 1981a)|
|Two or more works by the same author||(Berndt, Shortened First Book Title 221) then |
(Berndt, Shortened 2nd Book Title 68)
|Two or more works in the same parentheses||(Berndt 221; Harlow 99)||(Berndt, 2002; Harlow, 1983)|
|Authors with same last name||(E. Johnson 99)||(E. Johnson, 2001; L. Johnson, 1998)|
|Work does not have an author, cite the source by its title||(Book Title 44) or |
(Shortened Book Title 44)
|(Book Title, 2005) or|
("Article Title", 2004)
|Work has unknown author and date||("Article Title", n.d.)|
|* APA Note: If you are directly quoting from a work, you will need to include the author, year of publication, and the page number for the reference (preceded by "p.").|
Examples of Reference Citations using APA Format
Below are examples of how reference citations would look in your paper using the APA format.
"If you copy a sentence from a book or magazine article by a single author, the reference will look like this. A comma separates the page number (or numbers) from the year" (Bloggs, 2002, p. 37).
"If you copy a sentence from a book or magazine article by more than one author, the reference will look like this" (Bloggs & Smith, 2002, p. 37).
"Sometimes the author will have two publications in your bibliography for just one year. In that case, the first publication would have an 'a' after the publication year, the second a 'b', and so on. The reference will look like this" (Nguyen, 2000b).
"When the author is unknown, the text reference for such an entry may substitute the title, or a shortened version of the title for the author" (The Chicago Manual, 1993).
"For reference citations, only direct quotes need page numbers" (Han, 1995).
"Some sources will not have dates" (Blecker, n.d.).
Credit Where Credit Is Due!
When you work hard to write something, you don't want your friends to loaf and just copy it. Every author feels the same way.
Plagiarism is when someone copies the words, pictures, diagrams, or ideas of someone else and presents them as his or her own. When you find information in a book, on the Internet, or from some other source, you MUST give the author of that information credit in a citation. If you copy a sentence or paragraph exactly, you should also use quotation marks around the text.
The surprising thing to many students is how easy it is for parents, teachers, and science fair judges to detect and prove plagiarism. So, don't go there, and don't make us try to hunt you down!
Research Paper Checklist
|What Makes a Good Research Paper?||For a Good Research Paper, You Should Answer "Yes" to Every Question|
|Have you defined all important terms?||Yes / No|
|Have you clearly answered all your research questions?||Yes / No|
|Does your background research enable you to make a prediction of what will occur in your experiment? Will you have the knowledge to understand what causes the behavior you observe?||Yes / No|
|Have you included all the relevant math that you understand?||Yes / No|
|Have you referenced all information copied from another source and put any phrases, sentences, or paragraphs you copied in quotation marks?||Yes / No|
|If you are doing an engineering or programming project, have you defined your target user and answered questions about user needs, products that meet similar needs, design criteria, and important design tradeoffs?||Yes / No|