From North State Parent, February 2016, Volume 23 No. 5 by Steve Davala
Tackling the Challenge of Choosing a Good Research Question
If you are a student, you may have discovered that one of the most challenging parts of the science fair process is choosing a researchable topic that is both relevant and interesting to you, and you may need some help with formulating a good research question about your topic. If you are a parent of a younger student (I’ve seen Kindergarteners entered in science fairs…..), the problem is pretty much the same–finding a project at the appropriate age level and interesting to your youngster as well as figuring out the research question.
There are two main branches in science fairs–one is engineering, where students typically construct something to solve a problem; and the other is research/inquiry based, where students develop a testable question and gather data. This article focuses on the inquiry approach.
The first thing is to ask your student to choose a topic that they will enjoy. Experiments typically take at least a month, and there is no use spending that much time with a topic that is completely boring. Make the topic as specific as possible. For example, instead of “animals”, narrow it down to “insects”, or even “grasshoppers”. Some kids run with their first idea, but a better idea is to develop several ideas before actually choosing one.
One method that really works on how to formulate a research question is something called “Four Questions Strategy”. (Presented in Students and Research by Julia Cothron, Ronald N. Giese, and Richard J. Rezba) It centers on a student’s topic of choice:
- What materials are readily available for conducting experiments on my topic?
- How does my topic act/behave?
- How can I change the set of materials (from question 1) to affect my topic’s behavior?
- How can I measure/describe how my topic responds to the changes?
This strategy works for any topic–plants? Animals? Tennis? Using plants as a topic example, let’s explore how to use the strategy:
- What materials are readily available for conducting experiments on my topic? First step is to create a list of all the materials you’ll need to work with your topic; don’t go into specifics yet.
For plants general materials could be: plants, seeds, containers, soil, water, lighting, fertilizer.
- How does my topic act/behave? This requires that you think about all the things your topic does. For plants, they grow, absorb water, produce flowers, produce fruits/seeds, and photosynthesize. Take the time to do some research and discuss the topic with others to learn more.
- How can I change the set of materials to affect my topic’s behavior? This question opens up options for ways to experiment. Think about each material from your initial list. Brainstorm ways you can change/use the material to produce different results and write those down. Using the plant example, here are some ways to change the materials to see if they produce different results: Plants: types, ages, quantities, sources, organic/not organic. Containers: types (plastic, clay), widths, heights, drainage. Soil: types (sandy, clay, loam), amounts, moisture, density. Water: amounts, temperatures, sources, acidity levels.
- How can I measure or describe how my topic responds to the changes? This question helps ensure you will have good, presentable data for your chosen topic. Review your responses from #2 and think of ways to measure and track the changes in how your topic acts. Using our plants example, here are a few ideas: How plants grow: their height, width, number of flowers, number of fruit, weight of fruit. How plants absorb water: how often they need to be watered, how dry the soil gets. How plants produce seeds: the number of seeds, how well the seeds germinate.
Once you log your measurable data, it’s time to create a testable question using your responses from #2 and #3. Example: “How does the type of material a geranium is grown in affect how tall it gets?” Or, “How does the type of soil affect how dry the soil gets while growing radishes?” Look at all the combinations–you’ll have hundreds of possibilities to choose from.
For those of you who know some of the terms related to a science activity, #3 generates an independent variable (something you control), while #4 helps determine a dependent variable (something that changes as a result of the independent variable. At this point, with your testable question, you are now ready to get on with the rest of the science fair project. You will form a hypothesis, collect more data, analyze information, and describe what was learned. Make sure the final research question is important and insightful. If the student already knows the answer to his question, have him choose another question. The scientific method is all about asking questions about the amazing natural world around us, coming up with potential answers (hypotheses) and doing experiments to see if your hypotheses are correct. The first step in the scientific method is to come up with the question. What interests you? What do you enjoy doing? What are you curious about? Can it be done in the time allotted for the project? Do I have access to everything I need?
Be specific. Instead of something general like “I like animals” choose something more exact like “Australian Shepard dog”. Once you’ve picked a topic….make it very specific, not open-ended or vague. For instance, not “Why do dogs love to eat treats?” but rather, “What kinds of foods will make Australian Shepard’s wag their tails faster?” The first statement is hard to test, but the second one can be answered by experimenting.
Learning about science can be fun! Be sure to start early on deciding on your topic, and make it a topic you want to pursue with a great question that has scientific merit. Your science fair project can even lead you to earning a scholarship for your contributions to science.
(end of article)
Experiments I have seen with plants: (Karen Emerson)
The one I saw a Kindergartner do involved starting seeds in the soil, and watering them with water colored with different food colors. The object was to see if the flowers were affected by the food coloring or not.
The experiment I did long distance with my daughter at the beginning of her 8th grade year was a bit tougher. It had to be simple, something she could do with minimal supervision (at the time she was being watched by her brother, who is not scientific and had his own classes to do), and with minimal supplies. In a hotel room, no less.
We decided to grow plants, marigolds, I believe, (which made the plants the independent variable) and put varying amounts of dish soap in the water being used to water each plant (the independent variable). She got a packet of seeds, 6 small clay pots, potting soil, six large containers (to mix the soap with the water and be individual to each pot), and dish soap. She put the same amount of soil in each pot, took six seeds and buried at the same level in each pot, then watered every other day with the same amount of water from each water container. The first pot was just tap water, and each pot after that had an increasing amount of dish soap added to an initial same amount of water. Her biggest problem was keeping them out of the reach of the cats that were also in the room. They could not be put in direct sunlight. It took forever for anything to sprout, and then it did so in only pot #2. Her project was due, literally, the day after I got back from working out of town. We ended up emptying the pots and analyzing the sprouts underneath the soil. At least something had sprouted….. Her hypothesis was, “Will the plants with more dish soap be more affected than the plants with less dish soap?” We were able to prove that her hypothesis was true.