We just wrangled another science fair in our house. These are voluntary affairs at the elementary level in our district and prepping for one is an exhausting family ritual. I’m gratified that our kids usually want to do them, but adding a project to our busy evening agendas can get a bit stressful. In addition, finding a project that’s age and interest appropriate can be a tangle. Our kids are always interested in finding nature-based science fair projects that involve animals. No easy feat when most elementary projects lists concentrate on magnets, volcanoes, or sugar crystals. Not that I’m picking on those projects (what would a science fair be without at least one baking soda volcano?) but a little variety is nice, too.
Over the years we’ve put together a few nature-based science fair projects that get us outside, observing, and working on the basics of biology, zoology, and even physics. Here are a few of our brainstorms. These are mostly appropriate for elementary students, but where I can think of it I’ve added suggestions for older kids as well. Make sure you leave your own project ideas in the comments.
(Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist. I was an English major. These are guides and brainstorms, not formal projects or necessarily guaranteed to have airtight methodology. Proceed accordingly.)
1) Bird wings and flight patterns
True confession: this was my first grade son’s project this year. He was interested in the more general “How do birds fly?” question, but in the interest of focus we narrowed it down. A few observational periods later and he was off and running.
Hypothesis statement: Did bird wings evolve differently to serve different purposes?
Methodology: Observe and compare the wing types of a variety of bird species (gulls, song birds, predators, scavengers, etc.).
Experiment: Time for some bird watching! Try to find a variety of birds and locations, bring some binoculars and snacks, and have fun. A good bird guide may help you both identify your birds and outline wing shapes. How do the birds use their wings (short swoops for feeding, long or high flights, etc.)? My son used a paper airplane book he had to model some of the different wing options, but that seems optional.
For older kids: Kids who like building things may want to make some wing models out of different materials. Tech-savvy types may want to edit a video of their observationsto play on a loop. Truly motivated scientists may want to examine the physics of bird wings.
More ideas: There is a great explanation of the different bird wing types and uses here. And there’s a list of related bird science fair projects here.
2) Bugs in the wintertime
In kindergarten, my daughter came up with the idea of figuring out where bugs go in the winter. It turned out to be perfect, because what six-year-old wouldn’t enjoy wandering around the yard, flipping over rocks and logs and observing what’s underneath? We’ve got a good mix of snow cover and bare earth at our house that provides a variety of habitats, but the beauty of bugs is that they are everywhere.
Hypothesis statement: What do your kids expect to find? Where will bugs be? Why?
Methodology: Brainstorm a variety of locations with consideration to sunniness and shade. Places to check: the woodpile, under logs and leaves in the woods, the compost pile, rocks on the ground, in a rock wall, in dry the grass of a meadow, in your basement, under the bark of a tree.
Experiment: Go search! Take a camera with you to record what you find for your poster later. If you have trouble finding many varieties, make a special search for snow fleas and observe their behavior.
For older kids: Try constructing a habitat that will attract the bugs and control for sun, shade, wind, etc.
More ideas: The Smithsonian has some more great projects focused around insects, including ones that age up very nicely.
3) Light pollution
Ever notice that in some places you can see the stars better than others? That’s light pollution: the ambient light from all our streetlights, lit signs, and headlights that obscures the night sky. This is a perfect experiment for this time of year in Maine. It’s getting dark early enough for even the youngest scientist to check out the starry night and you can get good examples of light pollution just by driving around a bit unless you really live in the boonies. In which case: congratulations. Go learn some constellations.
Hypothesis statement: Do you think ambient light affects how bright the stars are?
Methodology: Observe and compare star visibility in a variety of settings. It might be helpful to come up with a 1 to 10 rating system for a semblance of consistency.
Experiment: On a clear night, drive around to a few different locations (in town, just outside of town, in the middle of nowhere) and compare the brightness of the stars. If you have a good, high lookout spot in your area, you may even be able to look toward a lighter area and towards a darker area and compare how much light flows up into the sky.
For older kids: Learn to identify a few constellations (my favorite is Orion because it’s so easy to locate) and check their visibility in a variety of locations (and throughout the moon phases if you have time). Research the causes and some solutions for light pollution. Really advanced scientists may be able to build a dark box with a light bulb demonstration.
More ideas: The truly motivated can apparently use their digital camera to measure skyglow and bring this to the next level. I barely understood the instructions, which means it can probably be accomplished by the average twelve-year-old.
Hopefully this gives you a few ideas to get started. And if this gets your young scientist jazzed, consider a visit to the upcoming Maine Science Festival to see what the non-English majors come up with.