Student Handbook

Guidelines to producing a successful project

Pick Your Topic

Get an idea of what you want to study. Ideas might come from hobbies or problems you see that need solutions. Due to limited time and resources, you may want to study only one or two specific events.

Study a topic that is of interest to you. If you are bored by the topic you will not enjoy the experience!

Teacher Tip:

One of the most difficult aspects of research -- and one of the least discussed -- is how to develop the idea for the research project in the first place. In training students, most assume that if they read enough of the research in an area of interest, they will be able to suddenly produce sensible ideas for research. The focus rather should be on helping students learn how to formulate good research problems. One way to do this is to give students a better idea of how professional researchers typically generate research ideas.

There are a number of tools and techniques teachers can use to help students map out ideas including: concept mapping, brainstorming, brainwriting, etc.

Where do research topics come from?

  • Experience of practical problems in the field
  • Literature in your specific field
  • Some researchers simply think up their research topic on their own influenced by background, culture, education and experiences

William Trochim, Ph.D.,Cornell University Copyright ©2002

The Research Methods Knowledge Base, 2e

ISBN: 1-931442-48-7 Copyright © 2001 Last Revised: 01/16/2005

Develop a Research Question

Other than determining the actual problem to be researched one of the most difficult elements of a student research project is developing good research questions.

In reality humans are constantly asking questions some of which are research based. For example: A student whose car won't start in the school parking lot begins to go through a checklist of what might be wrong and systematically tests and checks off wrong assumptions. This student without knowing they are doing so are asking research based methodical questions. This in fact, is more research based than some whiz bang expensive science demonstration that did not seek to solve a problem.

Research generally begins with some general problem or question. Usually, the problem is broad enough that you could not hope to address it adequately in a single research study. For example you might be interested in purple loosestrife infestations. Consequently, we typically narrow the problem down to a more specific research question that we can hope to address. The research question is often stated in the context of some theory that has been advanced to address the problem. The research question is the central issue being addressed in the study. For example, a research question might be:

"Is a biological control program effective at reducing purple loosestrife infestations?"

Teacher Tip:

What are the differences or distinguishing characteristics between a research question and a hypothesis in a research study?

Research generally begins with some general problem or question. Usually, the problem is broad enough that you could not hope to address it adequately in a single research study. For example you might be interested in purple loosestrife infestations. Consequently, we typically narrow the problem down to a more specific research question that we can hope to address. The research question is often stated in the context of some theory that has been advanced to address the problem. The research question is the central issue being addressed in the study. For example, a research question might be:

Is a biological control program effective at reducing purple loosestrife infestations?

The research question is still too general to be studied directly. Therefore in most research a more specific statement, called a hypothesis is developed. For example, the hypothesis for our purple loosestrife study might be something like:

Introduced populations of ladybird beetles will significantly reduce purple loosestrife infestations in three wetland locations in Hancock County, Iowa.

Notice that this hypothesis is specific enough that a reader can understand what the study is trying to assess.

Research Your Topic

  • Go to the library and read everything you can on your topic
  • Observe related events
  • Gather existing information on your topic
  • Look for unexplained or unexpected results
  • Talk to professionals in the field
  • Write to companies for specific information
  • Obtain or construct needed equipment

The Literature Review

One of the most important early steps in a research project is the conducting of the literature review. Students are likely to find out that most worthwhile ideas will have been thought of before, at least to some degree. A literature review is designed to identify related research. When looked at that way, there is almost no topic that is so new or unique that we can't locate relevant and informative related research.

Some tips about conducting the literature review. First, concentrate your efforts on the scientific literature . Try to determine what the most credible research journals are in your topical area and start with those. Put the greatest emphasis on research journals that use a blind review system. In a blind review, authors submit potential articles to a journal editor who solicits several reviewers who agree to give a critical review of the paper. The paper is sent to these reviewers with no identification of the author so that there will be no personal bias (either for or against the author). Based on the reviewers' recommendations, the editor can accept the article, reject it, or recommend that the author revise and resubmit it. Articles in journals with blind review processes can be expected to have a fairly high level of credibility. Second, do the review early in the research process. You are likely to learn a lot in the literature review that will help you in making the tradeoffs you'll need to face. After all, previous researchers also had to face tradeoff decisions.

What should you look for in the literature review? First, you might be able to find a study that is quite similar to the one you are thinking of doing. Since all credible research studies have to review the literature themselves, you can check their literature review to get a quick-start on your own. Second, prior research will help assure that you include all of the major relevant constructs in your study. You may find that other similar studies routinely look at an outcome that you might not have included. If you did your study without that construct, it would not be judged credible if it ignored a major construct. Third, the literature review will help you to find and select appropriate measurement instruments. You will readily see what measurement instruments researchers use themselves in contexts similar to yours. Finally, the literature review will help you to anticipate common problems in your research context. You can use the prior experiences of other to avoid common traps and pitfalls.

Develop a Hypothesis (or Engineering Goal)

A hypothesis is a specific statement of prediction. It describes in concrete (rather than theoretical) terms what you expect will happen in a study. Not all studies have hypotheses. Some engineering studies rather than having a hypothesis will have engineering goals instead. For almost all student research projects a hypothesis will be a necessary component. A single study may have one or many hypotheses. Students should not try to create multiple hypotheses for their project unless it will be an enhancement or a necessary part of the project. As some projects continue to expand and to develop students may add more than one hypothesis to the research problem and research question as a part of that expansion.

Teacher Tip:

The way to formally set up the hypothesis test is to formulate two hypothesis statements:

  • One that describes your prediction and
  • One that describes all the other possible outcomes with respect to the hypothesized relationship.

Your prediction is that variable A and variable B will be related (you don't care whether it's a positive or negative relationship). Then the only other possible outcome would be that variable A and variable B are not related. Usually, the hypothesis that you support (your prediction) is called the alternative hypothesis, and the hypothesis that describes the remaining possible outcomes is considered the null hypothesis.

This is going a bit beyond what a high school researcher might consider, however, if they have been involved with a student research project for awhile this may be a new challenge and discovering the differences and more detailed explanations of the various ways to set up hypotheses can easily be explored on the internet today. If the student is also involved in science fair for many years an upper level judge's question may explore their knowledge of alternative and null hypotheses.

Develop a Purpose

The purpose explores the ideas behind the research. Why is the research to be done? There should be a reason for wanting to do the research. Some explanation should be given as to what the research is expected to show and what is to be learned. The purpose should end up reflecting a very close relationship with the title.

Research is the process by which people create new knowledge about themselves or the world in which they live in order to answer a question or solve a problem. When choosing your topic, give careful thought to how your research might enhance the world and its inhabitants.


Create a Timetable

  • Once you have chosen a topic that not only interests you, but can be done in the amount of time you have use a calendar to identify important dates.
  • Leave time to fill out the forms and to review the Research Plan with your Sponsor.
  • Certain projects require more time because they need prior Scientific Review Committee (SRC) or Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval.
  • Allow plenty of time to experiment and collect data--even simple experiments do not always go as you might expect the first time, or even the second time.
  • Also leave time to write a paper and put together an exhibit.

The following is an example for a student exhibiting a project in Iowa :

(Note: each teacher will have different deadlines for having certain items turned in the following is simply an example – the main point is teachers and students should have a timeline and scheduled due dates for completing and grading various activities)

Research Project Timeline


Research Question


Library Research Day


Literature Review Rough Draft


Literature Review Final Draft






Materials List




Permission/Safety Forms
(SRC Paperwork)



Start: 4 th Week of October
End: 2nd Week of December 


Checked every Friday
End: December

Experiment Photo Story


Results (Charts & Graphs) plus general summation/tabulation of observations








Design Backdrop – Develop slides for backdrop display


Construct Backdrop

Completed: February

Research Paper Rough Draft


Research Paper Final Draft


Seminar Presentation (oral & powerpoint)


Local Display, Presentation, and Final Evaluation


Regional Science Fair (optional)

Entries Due:
Fair Date:

State Science Fair (optional – highly encouraged)

Entries Due:
Fair Date:

Iowa FFA Agriscience Fair

Entries Due:
Fair Date:

Other Science Event

Entries Due:
Fair Date:

Write Your Procedure

Once you have a feasible project idea, write a research plan. This plan should explain how you will do your experiments and exactly what it will involve.

Methods to be used in the research MUST BE PRESENTED IN DETAIL! The main goal of the procedure should be that anyone else reading the research would be able to copy it exactly. For example, if an animal or embryo is to be treated with drugs, the name of the drug, the concentration and amount of the drug to be administered and the method of administration should be clearly outlined. It is also important that the student knows exactly what he or she is to do before beginning the research. For example, if blood is to be drawn, the methods for obtaining the blood samples and the types of analyses to be completed should be recorded prior to beginning.

Teacher Tip:

Develop a controlled experiment A controlled experiment is when all factors that could possibly influence or change the outcome of your experiment are regulated, leaving uncontrolled ONLY the thing (variable) to be tested.

Example: If the question is, "What is the effect of a certain fertilizer on a plant's growth?" the student will need to determine the factors (variables) that can change and affect the plant's ability to grow. Some of the factors are: light, temperature of the air, temperature of the soil, moisture of soil, humidity in air, depth of seed planting, type of seed, soil type, and type of fertilizer. All of the above variables need to be controlled (CONTROL) except ONE. That becomes your variable.

A controlled experiment must be set up once the variable is identified. The experiment will consist of two identical experiments conducted at the same time, differing only in one variable. The two similar experimental groups are called:

a) the control group - that part of the experiment to be used as a standard of comparison

b) the experimental group - that part of the experiment where the variable is being tested.

Each tested item should almost be identical in size, shape and age, etc. Each group should consist of several items to be tested. For example, you might decide to use 3 Coleus plants, all 21 centimeters tall, planted in the same soil, same amount of soil, same size pot, etc. The variable being tested (type and/or amount of fertilizer) is the only differing factor. Therefore, the results of these two groups can be compared.

(Please note that control groups are not necessary in a computer science program or in some mathematics projects or engineering projects.)

A data collection chart and/or daily log must be created to record observations and numerical data. Now that the variable is isolated, differentiate between the independent variable and the dependent variable. The independent variable is the actor that is changing or varying in the experiment. That would be the type/amount of fertilizer. The dependent variable is what is quantitatively measured to determine the effect of the fertilizer on the plant's growth. That would be best determined by measuring plant growth in centimeters. Create a chart that will have a place to record date, which plant, and its length in centimeters.

Accurate records are very important. Measuring a plant's height (or length) in response to a chemical is an okay idea, better still would be to measure additional dimensions - such as width, root mass, number of leaves, stem width, total surface area of leaves, etc. This gives a more complete picture of the effects being studied, thus adding to the VALIDITY of your results. Think about how to measure your results as completely as possible.

The validity of your results will be affected if you do not have enough test subjects or do not grow the plants for a sufficient period of time. Usually you would want to have a minimum of 20 plants (10 in the controlled group and 10 in the experimental group) and record their growth for at least 30 days. Each plant would represent a separate trial. Students should consult with you for their specific experiment to determine what is sufficient data collection for that particular project.


WARNING: You risk being disqualified from competitions if it is found out that correct permission was not obtained in advance of the study!

Consult Your Adult Sponsor

You are required to discuss your research plan with an Adult Sponsor and obtain a signature of approval. In reviewing Research Plan (1A) with Research Plan Attachment, your Sponsor should determine if additional forms and/or IRB/SRC prior approval is needed.

Teacher Tip:

For information on forming your local Scientific Review Committee (SRC) or Institutional Review Board (IRB) review these sections of the SSTFI rule booklet.


Or access the Intel ISEF rules on SRC committees at .

Click on the link to download a PDF of the Intel ISEF handbook

Students who go through a university or institution review will not need to be reviewed by local committees.


WARNING: You risk being disqualified from competitions if it is found out that correct permission was not obtained in advance of the study!

At this point students and sponsors should complete for ALL projects the following SRC forms:

Form 1: Checklist for Adult Sponsor

Form 1A: Student Checklist

Research Plan

Form 1B: Approval Form

If needed these other forms must also be completed:

Form 1C: Regulated Research Institutional/Industrial Setting Form

  • Only if research is to be conducted in a regulated research institution or industrial setting
  • i.e. – universities, medical centers, industrial warehouses or labs, etc.

Form 2: Qualified Scientist Form

  • Required for projects involving pathogens
  • May be required for projects involving rDNA
  • Vertebrate Animals
  • Controlled Substances
  • Humans

Form 3: Risk Assessment Form

  • Required for projects using hazardous materials or devices or tissue studies.

Form 4: Human Subjects Form


  • Required for ALL research involving humans

Form 5A: Vertebrate Animal Form

  • Required for ALL research involving vertebrate animals

Form 5B: Vertebrate Animal Form

  • Only required if research involving vertebrate animals is conducted at a Regulated Research Institution (IACUC approval will be required before experimentation)

Form 6A or
Form 6B: Human and Vertebrate Animal Tissue Form

  • Required for all projects using:
  • Fresh tissue
  • Organs
  • Primary cell cultures
  • Established cell and tissue cultures
  • Meat or meat by-products
  • Human or animal parts including: blood, blood products, teeth, and body fluids

Form 7: Continuation Projects Form

  • Required for projects that are a continuation in the same area of study from a previous year(s)' project.

Conduct Your Experiment

Give careful thought to experimental design. During experimentation, keep detailed notes of each and every experiment, measurement, and observation. Do not rely on your memory. Remember to change only one variable at a time when experimenting, and make sure to include control experiments in which none of the variables are changed. Make sure you include sufficient numbers of test subjects in both control and experimental groups. A group must have five or more subjects to be statistically valid.

Students should learn to be skeptical of all research results, especially their own. A good experiment may or may not answer the questions asked, but almost always leads to fresh questions requiring new experiments or observations. The final hypothesis is often developed after one has run a number of preliminary experiments, analyzed a body of results, and reached a tentative conclusion.

Examine Your Results

When you complete your experiments, examine and organize your findings. Did your experiments give you the expected results. Why or why not? Was your experiment performed with the exact same steps each time? Are there other explanations that you had not considered or observed? Were there errors in your observations? Remember that understanding errors and reporting that a suspected variable did not change the results can be valuable information. If possible, statistically analyze your data.

The Project Data Book

A project data book is your most treasured piece of work. Accurate and detailed notes make a logical and winning project. Good notes show consistency and thoroughness to the judges, and will help you when writing your research paper.

Keeping records is of utmost importance when completing a student research project. Records must be kept immediately upon observation in a log book to ensure accurate results and conclusions later in the project. Along with the record keeping comes taking photographs along the way to document and explain the procedural process. Finally, once results have been recorded and tabulated the need to be presented in an easy to read and understand manner – a one quick glance aspect. This is accomplished by creating graphs and charts from the recorded data.

Teacher Tip:

For an excellent Web “techtorial” on Microsoft Excel both the basics and designing charts and graphs check out:

Draw Conclusions

Which variables are important? Did you collect enough data? Do you need to conduct more experimentation? Keep an open mind - never alter results to fit a theory. If your results do not support your original hypothesis, you still have accomplished successful scientific research. An experiment is done to prove or disprove a hypothesis.

Describe what happened from the results of the experiment. Why did the experiment end up as it did? The conclusion helps the student and anyone else interested in the project understand what happened and explain why. The answers will not always be easy. Describe how the experiment relates to a real life scenario either on a local, state, national or global level. Is it beneficial to the general community? Students need to describe how their research will affect their community. How will the project apply to the real world?

Write the Abstract

Finally it all concludes and wraps up by writing the abstract. Researchers of all levels need to be able to write an abstract. The abstract describes the very essence of the research and sums it up so that others may comprehend what the research entailed in a very short amount of time.

After finishing research and experimentation, you are required to write a (maximum) 250-word, one-page abstract. An abstract should include the (a) purpose of the experiment, (b) procedures used, (c) data, and (d) conclusions. It also may include any possible research applications. Only minimal reference to previous work may be included. An abstract should not include: a) acknowledgments, or b) work or procedures done by the mentor.

Abstract Example

Patent & Copyright Information

You may want to consider applying for a patent or copyright if you want to protect your work. You can contact the Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Patent Office, at 703/305-8341 for Patent information or the Library of Congress at 202/707-3000 for copyright information.

The Research Paper

A research paper should be prepared and available along with a project data book, and any necessary forms or relevant written materials. A research paper helps organize data as well as thoughts. A good paper includes the following sections:

Communication is the key to almost everything and research is no exception. Writing a research paper and being able to orally present or communicate the research is a key to any experiment. You should write a research paper and design a power point presentation to be used in order to effectively communicate their research to others.

Title Page: Center the project title, and put your name, address, school, and grade at the bottom right.

Table of Contents: Include a page number for the beginning of each section.

Introduction: The introduction sets the scene for your report. The introduction includes your hypothesis, an explanation of what prompted your research, and what you hoped to achieve.

Experiment: Describe in detail the methodology used to collect your data or make your observations. Your report should be detailed enough so that someone would be able to repeat the experiment from the information in your paper. Include detailed photographs or drawings of self-designed equipment. Only include this year's work.

Discussion: The discussion is the essence of your paper. The results and conclusions should flow smoothly and logically from your data. Be thorough. Allow your readers to see your train of thought, letting them know exactly what you did. Compare your results with theoretical values, published data, commonly held beliefs, and/or expected results. Include a discussion of possible errors. How did the data vary between repeated observations of similar events? How were your results affected by uncontrolled events? What would you do differently if you repeated this project? What other experiments should be conducted?

Conclusion: Briefly summarize your results. Be specific, do not generalize. Never introduce anything in the conclusion that has not already been discussed.

Acknowledgments: : You should always credit those who assisted you, including individuals, businesses, and educational or research institutions. Identify any financial support or material donations received.

References: Your reference list should include any documentation that is not your own (i.e., books, journal articles). See an appropriate reference in your discipline for format. ex: Foley, J.D. (1987). Interfaces for Advanced Computing. Scientific American, 257, 127-135.

The Backdrop

Design the backdrop so that others may benefit from looking over the research in a visual display. This is an important aspect to science research. Researchers need to show others that their research had a strong purpose and definite outcomes. In many cases this may mean additional funding or even being able to show others in their field a new breakthrough.

You want to attract and inform. Make it easy for interested spectators and judges to assess your study and the results you have obtained. Make the most of your space using clear and concise displays. Make headings stand out, and draw graphs and diagrams clearly and label them correctly.

Helpful Hints for Display: Make sure the display reflects the current year's work only.

A Good Title: Your title is an extremely important attention-grabber. A good title should simply and accurately present your research. The title should make the casual observer want to know more.

Take Photographs: Many projects involve elements that may not be safely exhibited at the fair, but are an important part of the project. You might want to take photographs of important parts/phases of your experiment to use in your display. Photographs or other visual images of human test subjects must have informed consent.

Be Organized: Make sure your display is logically presented and easy to read. A glance should permit anyone (particularly the judges) to locate quickly the title, experiments, results, and conclusions. When you arrange your display, imagine that you are seeing it for the first time.

Eye-Catching: Make your display stand out. Use neat, colorful headings, charts, and graphs to present your project. Home-built equipment, construction paper, and colored markers are excellent for project displays. Pay special attention to the labeling of graphs, charts, diagrams, and tables. Each item must have a descriptive title. Anyone should be able to understand the visuals without further explanation.

Correctly Presented & Well-Constructed: Be sure to adhere to the size limitations and safety rules when preparing your display. Display all required forms for your project. Make sure your display is sturdy, as it will need to remain intact for quite a while. Do not hesitate to ask for advice from adults if you need it.

Teacher Tip:

Note on boards: you can buy boards at office supply stores, however, in Iowa many boards are an engineering project in themselves. Although not necessary to build your own board these usually are sturdier and will withstand the test of time. Work with the Industrial Technology Instructor who might have another class that is working in the shop and would have these students build a number of project boards (lumber and hinges are about all you need – try to keep it light). Then have students who use the boards cover them with felt (color of their choice). It is a simple matter to then Velcro laminated papers to the back. Plus, they can be used over and over for many years.

Note on Information Displayed: Today most project displays are put together in PowerPoint, printed off, laminated, and attached to the display board. If the display board is covered in felt strong Velcro works well to attach the information.

Here Comes the Judge

Judges evaluate 1) how well a student followed the scientific method; 2) the detail and accuracy of research as documented in the data book; and 3) whether experimental procedures were used in the best possible way.

Judges look for well thought-out research. They look at how significant your project is in its field, as well as how thorough you were. Did you leave something out? Did you start with four experiments and finish only three?

Judges applaud those students who can speak freely and confidently about their work. They are not interested in memorized speeches--they simply want to TALK with you about your research to see if you have a good grasp of your project from start to finish. Besides asking the obvious questions, judges often ask questions to test your insight into your projects such as "What didn't you do?" and "What would be your next step?"