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Building Your Science Fair Project

Apr 10, 2008
Do you have the right tools for the job? How about materials? Here are a few tips on practical projecteering

Supervision is required for experiments involving animals.

If your tools are inadequate for building a project, check your high school shop. Chances are they will have everything you need including power tools and special equipment to make the job easier.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't automatically become a carpenter when you buy a power saw, or a metal craftsman if you install a lathe in your basement.

Consider the sad story of a famous professor of electrical engineering at a noted technical institution. This learned gentleman was one of the pioneers of radio technology, and each year he taught several hundred engineering students receiver design theory. One day the radio in his office quit and he tried to repair it. After several days of unsuccessful trouble shooting, testing, and rewiring, he gave up. A local radio repairman fixed the set in a few minutes.

The point is that it is just plain common sense to know what you are doing in practical terms before you try to do it.

The title of your project doesn't tell you how to build it. You must decide on the materials to use, how to arrange components, and the dimensions of your work. Consider the aims of project building. First, your display must be effective in achieving the goals you have set for yourself. Second, it must demonstrate a good scientific approach to the problem. In other words, your project must do the job, and do it in the best possible way.

Design of experiments is an art in itself. Experience is the best teacher, but you can gain insight into the problems involved by reading accounts and histories of classical experiments. Your local technical library should have several textbooks on the theory of experimentation. These are concerned with the mathematical aspects of experiment design. For example, how many tests are required before a theory can be accepted as true?

Suggestions for Building

Organize your building efforts around the following suggestions:

1. Make sure your project meets the specifications or requirements set out by local science fair administrators. Maximum dimensions, maximum weight, and safety precautions may be specified. Projects using living things will have to conform to Regulations for Experiments with Animals, as outlined by the National Science Fair-International.

2. Build safety INTO your project, not ON to it as an afterthought. All structural materials must be adequate for the job. Fuse all electrical wiring, and make sure that wiring is of the correct size for the current being carried. Heavy equipment should be well supported; avoid top-heavy arrangements that could tip over. If your project uses potentially dangerous materials or equipment, design adequate protective devices and safety precautions.

3. Build your project with ease of maintenance and repair in mind. Don't hide often-replaced components in hard to reach corners. Design cabinets and cases so that they can be removed quickly if necessary. Add extra doors or hatches in the vicinity of components requiring frequent adjustment or maintenance.

4. Aim for durability and utility. Use rugged components at points where strain or wear are problems. Experimental apparatus must hold up under actual use. Engineering projects must do their job reliably and with little maintenance.

5. Don't overbuild or underbuild. Construction should be adequate, but it doesn't have to be overly strong. Don't use scotch tape if welding is called for; and by the same token don't use reinforced concrete if balsa wood will do the job.

6. Your project must be convenient to handle and transport. Several smaller units are preferable to one huge one. (Remember the story of the man who built a boat in his basement only to find he couldn't get it through the door!)

7. Complete the major sections of your project first. Accessories can be added after the essentials are finished.

Your instructors can help you learn basic techniques.

Good luck with your project!
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