With science fair season coming up as well as many end of the year projects, students are often required to write a research paper or a report on their project. Use this guide to help you in the process from finding a topic to revising and editing your final paper.
Sometimes one of the largest barriers to writing a research paper is trying to figure out what to write about. Many times the topic is supplied by the teacher, or the curriculum tells what the student should research and write about. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes the student is given a very broad concept to write a research paper on, for example, water. Within the category of water, there are many topics and subtopics that would be appropriate. Topics about water can include anything from the three states of water, different water sources, minerals found in water, how water is used by living organisms, the water cycle, or how to find water in the desert. The point is that “water” is a very large topic and would be too broad to be adequately covered in a typical 3-5 page research paper.
When given a broad category to write about, it is important to narrow it down to a topic that is much more manageable. Sometimes research needs to be done in order to find the best topic to write about. (Look for searching tips in “Finding and Gathering Information.”) Listed below are some tips and guidelines for picking a suitable research topic:
- Pick a topic within the category that you find interesting. It makes it that much easier to research and write about a topic if it interests you.
- You may find while researching a topic that the details of the topic are very boring to you. If this is the case, and you have the option to do this, change your topic.
- Pick a topic that you are already familiar with and research further into that area to build on your current knowledge.
- When researching topics to do your paper on, look at how much information you are finding. If you are finding very little information on your topic or you are finding an overwhelming amount, you may need to rethink your topic.
- If permissible, always leave yourself open to changing your topic. While researching for topics, you may come across one that you find really interesting and can use just as well as the previous topics you were searching for.
- Most importantly, does your research topic fit the guidelines set forth by your teacher or curriculum?
Finding and Gathering Information
There are numerous resources out there to help you find information on the topic selected for your research paper. One of the first places to begin research is at your local library. Use the Dewey Decimal System or ask the librarian to help you find books related to your topic. There are also a variety of reference materials, such as encyclopedias, available at the library.
A relatively new reference resource has become available with the power of technology – the Internet. While the Internet allows the user to access a wealth of information that is often more up-to-date than printed materials such as books and encyclopedias, there are certainly drawbacks to using it. It can be hard to tell whether or not a site contains factual information or just someone’s opinion. A site can also be dangerous or inappropriate for students to use.
You may find that certain science concepts and science terminology are not easy to find in regular dictionaries and encyclopedias. A science dictionary or science encyclopedia can help you find more in-depth and relevant information for your science report. If your topic is very technical or specific, reference materials such as medical dictionaries and chemistry encyclopedias may also be good resources to use.
If you are writing a report for your science fair project, not only will you be finding information from published sources, you will also be generating your own data, results, and conclusions. Keep a journal that tracks and records your experiments and results. When writing your report, you can either write out your findings from your experiments or display them using graphs or charts.
*As you are gathering information, keep a working bibliography of where you found your sources. Look under “Citing Sources” for more information. This will save you a lot of time in the long run!
Most people find it hard to just take all the information they have gathered from their research and write it out in paper form. It is hard to get a starting point and go from the beginning to the end. You probably have several ideas you know you want to put in your paper, but you may be having trouble deciding where these ideas should go. Organizing your information in a way where new thoughts can be added to a subtopic at any time is a great way to organize the information you have about your topic. Here are two of the more popular ways to organize information so it can be used in a research paper:
- Graphic organizers such as a web or mind map. Mind maps are basically stating the main topic of your paper, then branching off into as many subtopics as possible about the main topic. Enchanted Learning has a list of several different types of mind maps as well as information on how to use them and what topics fit best for each type of mind map and graphic organizer.
- General to specific list. This method is similar to using a mind map except it is used in a linear list fashion by stating the topic and then listing the supporting details underneath. The general to specific list method works best when using a computer because ideas can easily be added without the information becoming “squashed” as would happen when it is written out. This method works in the following format:I. Topic ~ Water as a solid in nature
- Subtopic: Glaciers – large masses of ice on land
- Sub-Subtopic: Low temperatures and adequate amounts of snow are needed to form glaciers.
- Sub-Subtopic: Glaciers move large amounts of earth and debris.
- Sub-Subtopic: Two basic types of glaciers: valley and continental.
- Subtopic: Icebergs – large masses of ice floating on liquid water
II. Topic ~ Water as a liquid in nature
- Subtopic: Glaciers – large masses of ice on land
Different Formats For Your Paper
Depending on your topic and your writing preference, the layout of your paper can greatly enhance how well the information on your topic is displayed.
- Process. This method is used to explain how something is done or how it works by listing the steps of the process. For most science fair projects and science experiments, this is the best format. Reports for science fairs need the entire project written out from start to finish. Your report should include a title page, statement of purpose, hypothesis, materials and procedures, results and conclusions, discussion, and credits and bibliography. If applicable, graphs, tables, or charts should be included with the results portion of your report.
- Cause and effect. This is another common science experiment research paper format. The basic premise is that because event X happened, event Y happened.
- Specific to general. This method works best when trying to draw conclusions about how little topics and details are connected to support one main topic or idea.
- Climatic order. Similar to the “specific to general” category, here details are listed in order from least important to most important.
- General to specific. Works in a similar fashion as the method for organizing your information. The main topic or subtopic is stated first, followed by supporting details that give more information about the topic.
- Compare and contrast. This method works best when you wish to show the similarities and/or differences between two or more topics. A block pattern is used when you first write about one topic and all its details and then write about the second topic and all its details. An alternating pattern can be used to describe a detail about the first topic and then compare that to the related detail of the second topic. The block pattern and alternating pattern can also be combined to make a format that better fits your research paper.
When writing a research paper, you must cite your sources! Otherwise you are plagiarizing (claiming someone else’s ideas as your own) which can cause severe penalties from failing your research paper assignment in primary and secondary grades to failing the entire course (most colleges and universities have this policy). To help you avoid plagiarism, follow these simple steps:
- Find out what format for citing your paper your teacher or curriculum wishes you to use. One of the most widely used and widely accepted citation formats by scholars and schools is the Modern Language Association (MLA) format. We recommended that you do an Internet search for the most recent format of the citation style you will be using in your paper.
- Keep a working bibliography when researching your topic. Have a document in your computer files or a page in your notebook where you write down every source that you found and may use in your paper. (You probably will not use every resource you find, but it is much easier to delete unused sources later rather than try to find them four weeks down the road.) To make this process even easier, write the source down in the citation format that will be used in your paper. No matter what citation format you use, you should always write down title, author, publisher, published date, page numbers used, and if applicable, the volume and issue number.
- When collecting ideas and information from your sources, write the author’s last name at the end of the idea. When revising and formatting your paper, keep the author’s last name attached to the end of the idea, no matter where you move that idea. This way, you won’t have to go back and try to remember where the ideas in your paper came from.
- There are two ways to use the information in your paper: paraphrasing and quotes. The majority of your paper will be paraphrasing the information you found. Paraphrasing is basically restating the idea being used in your own words. As a general rule of thumb, no more than two of the original words should be used in sequence when paraphrasing information, and similes should be used for as many of the words as possible in the original passage without changing the meaning of the main point. Sometimes, you may find something stated so well by the original author that it would be best to use the author’s original words in your paper. When using the author’s original words, use quotation marks only around the words being directly quoted and work the quote into the body of your paper so that it makes sense grammatically. Search the Internet for more rules on paraphrasing and quoting information.
Revising and Editing Your Paper
Revising your paper basically means you are fixing grammatical errors or changing the meaning of what you wrote. After you have written the rough draft of your paper, read through it again to make sure the ideas in your paper flow and are cohesive. You may need to add in information, delete extra information, use a thesaurus to find a better word to better express a concept, reword a sentence, or just make sure your ideas are stated in a logical and progressive order.
After revising your paper, go back and edit it, correcting the capitalization, punctuation, and spelling errors – the mechanics of writing. If you are not 100% positive a word is spelled correctly, look it up in a dictionary. Ask a parent or teacher for help on the proper usage of commas, hyphens, capitalization, and numbers. You may also be able to find the answers to these questions by doing an Internet search on writing mechanics or by checking you local library for a book on writing mechanics.
It is also always a good idea to have someone else read your paper. Because this person did not write the paper and is not familiar with the topic, he or she is more likely to catch mistakes or ideas that do not quite make sense. This person can also give you insights or suggestions on how to reword or format your paper to make it flow better or convey your ideas better.
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|