Science fair inventions: 
A step by step guide to creating your winning science fair project

In schools everywhere, science fair inventions are the latest trend. Teachers don’t just expect a science fair project, but an original invention idea.

Do you need to come up with an original science fair project?  

Inventions and the invention process are the perfect activities to focus on when working on a science fair project. The process of inventing involves research, probing into potentially better solutions, collection of data, experimenting and trial and error. Inventing is truly the perfect educational activity to match with the objectives of a science fair.

A good science fair project is not about the outcome, but the process of arriving at it. Science fair projects are meant to guide a student through a set of questions, followed by enquiries and scientific experiments. The process of observation and the collection of data, the background research and the actual effort to build something new, based on all this background work, are what makes one science project extraordinary and another a copycat.

The process of invention is quite similar. There are two ways to approach it. With the first, you start with a clear question or enquiry – how can I solve this problem? or what can I do to create a better solution to a specific need?  You then do your scientific research and try to identify the best method to come up with a new inventive solution.

The second alternative is to start from the end: you observe how a scientific phenomenon works, understand the theory behind it and what makes it operate in a certain way. Then you can try and think what other solutions can use the same method or benefit from the same construct – and voila you come up with a science fair invention.

A really great science fair invention is one that is not merely copied from an idea you found in a textbook on or a website, but is a result of your own research and efforts to come up with a great new solution. Teachers and judges will be more impressed if you show the process you went through to arrive at your findings and with the fact that you conducted proper experiments, collected data and tested your initial assumptions than by the originality or extravaganza of the final invention.

Here are some tips and steps you can follow to come up with your own original science fair inventions:

Science fair inventions: step 1# - Find your original invention idea

The first step is to try and identify an area in which you would like your invention to centre around.

Start by brainstorming different needs and problems around you. What frustrates you, in your daily life? Are there bigger problems around you that need solving? Look at existing products, ones you use every day – can they be improved? Check our invention ideas for kids page to help you come up with an initial list of potential ideas for your invention.

Remember, at this point, you don’t need a fully fleshed invention idea. All you need is to identify a few concepts that interest you. A few general questions you might like to answer or find a solution to.

Once you have a few concepts in mind, you are ready for the next step – the background research.

Science fair inventions: step 2# - Conduct background research

The second stage is crucial to any scientific undertaking. Now that you have one (or several) ideas for your potential invention, you need to do some background research, in order to better understand:

a.       What is already available, how it works – by getting a good grasp of how current solutions work and what makes them good or not satisfactory, you can more easily come up with a new solution

b.      What are some potential ideas you could use to create your own invention, which solves a problem in a better way or is innovative altogether.

First, try to understand what is currently used to solve the problem you identified. Which products already exist and what makes them work the way they do.

Let’s take a simple example. Let’s say you identified the need to see better in the dark. You are likely not going to choose such an obvious field, but it’s a good illustration of how every type of topic you might choose should be handled.

So, you realized doing any kind of work in the dark is hard and that this is an area where you would like to come up with a new innovative solution. Some of the obvious solutions that exist are light bulbs, flashlights or reflectors. Other similar products to look at are fluorescent or bright clothing or reflecting lights that bikers often use when traveling in the dark to help them to be seen by others. 

Our objective is to brainstorm any kind of solution that is remotely relevant to your area of invention: generating light, in the dark.

Some of the ideas mentioned above, are not direct solutions to the problem at hand, but they are all relevant and all have to do with the science of generating light. By looking into them and understanding how they work, you can get ideas and start writing down some hypotheses, on how these products or solutions, can be used differently or if they can be combined to arrive at the solution that that can serve as a good potential science fair invention.

Here is how to start: make a list of the benefits of each solution you found during the previous step, how it works and where it falls short.  By identifying what doesn’t work quite well, you will be able to identify areas, for which you could provide real value.

Quick Tip – it’s important to document your research, so that you can show your thinking process at the fair. Judges and teachers would be very interested at that.

Science fair inventions: step 3# - Coming up with hypotheses for your new invention idea

Now that you have collected some ideas as to what exists and what could be improved, it’s time to think of potential new solutions. Just brainstorming out of thin air is quite hard, so let me offer some guidelines that could help you come up with some invention ideas.

Go back to nature: we often underestimate the potential to literally be inspired by nature. Many great inventions were the result of scientists observing how things were happening in nature and copying them into our own physical world.

In our example of trying to see in the dark, you could look at fireflies and investigate how they create light. You can look at how light is produced and how it is reflected in different substances.  You could also research how other famous inventions in the field of light generation came to be.

Once you have a good understanding of the science behind creating light, you can build your initial hypothesis for your science fair invention.

Disconnect a product from its original use: a great way to brainstorm new invention idea, is to look at the current solutions you have identified during your research stage, and disconnect some part of it from its original use. For example: glasses are usually used to aid people to see. However, if you are stuck in a desert island and you need to light a fire you could use them as magnifying glass to center rays of light. In a similar way, some inventions use a part of a product for an intention completely different from what it was originally intended for. The old Volkswagen beetle cars used the air pressure in one backup wheel to make the windows cleaning system work.

Add to products or solutions together: take one of the solutions you identified and add it to another existing product – together you can create a whole new invention, that didn't exist before. Example: mobile phone today include a camera – these are two different solutions combined together.

Or take the idea of Kristin Ann Hrabar, she was only 9 years old at the time, and he father asked her to hold a flashlight while he was using a screwdriver in the dark basement. She came up with the simple idea of creating work tools that have an internal source of light. Essentially she combined the flashlight with the tool. She took her invention to the local science fair and won, climbing up all the way to the state fair. To make a long story short, a few years later Kristin wrote two patents on her invention and started a commercial company selling those tools, which still exist today.  So as you can see, your science fair invention idea could have a bright future too!

These are just a few ideas on how to use thinking tips for the inventing process. You can find many more on the inventions-handbook site – for example, here and here.

Science fair inventions: step 4# - Build an experiment to validate your invention idea

Now that you have your initial idea for an invention, and some ideas on how it can potentially be created, it’s time to build an experiment.

This needn’t be something too complicated. But it needs to show how your ideas can manifest in real life and bring about the results you are looking for. In the example I just gave above, of Kristin Ann Hrabar’s invention, she could just as well have connected a flashlight with masking tape to a screwdriver, or dismantle a screwdriver top and attach it to a clear tube, adding a light bulb inside.

If you can’t find all the different parts you need to create your experiment around the house, use similar ones that would demonstrate the same concepts. Your science project might actually be more valuable if you try to build your experiment from scratch, using alternative parts – as this is a true process of scientific invention!

As long as you can explain why the material you have chosen can be a good substitute to your original intention and help you collect relevant data, judges won’t mind.  

Think creatively on how to build your experiment – use Lego, parts of toys, or invest in some invention kits that essentially have all the different pieces you might need to construct one of several science projects. We recommend using this invention kit, which one prizes and got very good reviews.

However, if this one doesn’t meet your needs, there are several other good ones in stores everywhere (search Amazon for invention kits for kids, to choose the one that suits you the most).

Once you build your new invention experiment, test it to see if it works. If it doesn’t, make small improvements – and test again! Collect the data and arrive at conclusions.  What worked? What didn’t? What did you have to do to change it?

Make sure to document the process and include it in your presentation at the fair!

Science fair inventions: step 5# - Create your science fair invention display

Your display should have a prototype of your invention, or one adequately showing the concept behind it, as well as an overview of the process that you have taken to arrive at your results.  Rehearse your story well – what led you to choose your invention, how did you come up with an idea for an experiment, what you found while trying out different solutions etc.

Remember, judges don’t necessarily want an original new invention that was never seen before, but rather to see that you went through the scientific process and learned by doing it.

Don’t worry if at the end you don’t have a functioning invention. If it’s a step on the way and you can show that you have researched it properly you have a great science fair project invention.

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