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Student Research Projects = Inquiry Science

Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world.

National Science Education Standards, p. 23.


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Why Participate in Student Research Projects?

  • Integrates many standards that are often delineated into separate classes – reading, writing, spelling, grammar, mathematics, statistics, ethics, logic, critical thinking, computer science, graphic arts, and scientific methodology.

  • Students are allowed to investigate questions or interests that they already have.

  • Gives students ownership of their learning.

  • Uses the natural inquisitive nature that we are all born with.


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Why Participate in Science Fair Competition?

  • Incorporates public speaking and defense in front of expert judges.

  • Provides students the opportunity to build confidence, challenge potential, and instill the feeling of independent achievement.

  • Can pay off in cash and open the door to academic and industry opportunities.


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School Science Fair

District Science Fair

Regional Science Fair

State Science Fair

International Science Fair

School and District science fairs are not required in all regions, but a good tool to select those worthy of regional competition.

Students must participate and win at the Regional level in order to participate at the Colorado Science and Engineering Fair.

Students can move on to the International competition from either a Regional Fair that is affiliated with Science Service, or the CSEF.

Science Fair Competition Progression



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Adult Sponsor

May be a:

  • Teacher

  • Parent

  • University Professor

  • Working Scientist

    They must have a solid background in science and should have close contact with the student during the course of the project.

The Adult Sponsor is ultimately responsible not only for the health & safety of the student research, but also for the humans and animals used as subjects.


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Qualified Scientist

  • Should possess an earned doctoral/professional degree in the biological or medical sciences as it relates to the student’s area of research.

  • Must be thoroughly familiar with the regulations that govern the student’s area of research.

  • May be the Adult Sponsor.

  • May be located in a different city or state as long as the student works locally with a Designated Supervisor.


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Designated Supervisor

  • Is directly responsible for overseeing student experimentation.

  • Does not need an advanced degree, but should be thoroughly familiar with the student’s project.

  • Must be trained in the student’s area of research.

  • May be the Adult Sponsor.

If a student is experimenting with live vertebrate animals and they are in a situation where their behavior or habitat is influenced by humans, the Designated Supervisor must be knowledgeable about the humane care and handling of the animals.


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Must consist of a minimum of three members:

A science teacher

A school administrator

Someone who is knowledgeable and capable of evaluating the physical (medical doctor, physician’s assistant, registered nurse) and/or psychological (psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed social worker) risk involved in a given study

Additional members are recommended to help avoid conflict of interest when one of the above is the Adult Sponsor. Qualified Scientist or Designated Supervisor of a project being reviewed.

Charged with evaluating the potential physical and/or psychological risk of research involving human subjects.

Federal regulations encourage local community involvement, therefore, an IRB should be established at the school level to evaluate human research projects involving its students. However, a district IRB may be used.

If the research is being conducted at a federal institution (such as university, medical center, correctional facility) then that institution’s IRB must review and approve all proposed research.

If an SRC, reviewing projects prior to competition, judges that the IRB’s risk assessment was inappropriate, the SRC may override the IRB’s decision and the project may fail to qualify.

Institutional Review Board


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Must consist of a minimum of three members:

A biomedical scientist (Ph.D., M.D., D.V.M., D.D.S., D.O.)

A science teacher

One other member

If animal research is involved, at least one member must be familiar with proper animal care procedures.

Additional members are recommended to help avoid conflict of interest when one of the above is the Adult Sponsor. Qualified Scientist or Designated Supervisor of a project being reviewed.

Charged with reviewing projects BEFORE experimentation for the following:

Evidence of literature search

Evidence of proper supervision

Use of accepted and appropriate research techniques

Completed forms, signatures, and dates

Evidence of search for alternatives to animal use

Humane treatment of animals

Compliance with rules and laws governing human and animal research

Compliance with rules regarding recombinant DNA, pathogenic agents, controlled substances and hazardous substances and devices

Documentation of substantial expansion for continuation projects

Compliance with the ISEF ethics statement

Scientific Review Committee


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Human Subjects

When students conduct research with human subjects, the rights and welfare of those participating in the study must be protected. There are federal regulations protecting human subjects that require the prior review of human subjects research by an Institutional Review Board and, in most cases, the informed consent of research subjects. The rules developed by the ISEF SRC are to help students researchers adhere to the Federal regulations and to protect both the research subjects and the student researcher.

Human Subject research includes projects involving:

  • Subjects participating in physical activities (i.e. physical exertion, ingestion of any substance, any medical procedure)

  • Psychological and opinion studies (i.e. survey, questionnaire, test of any kind)

  • Behavioral observations

  • Studies in which the researcher is the subject of the research


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Tips for Human Subject Research Projects

  • Form 4 is filled out by the researcher to explain to the IRB how the safety and well being of the test subjects will be ensured. The IRB reviews the project (including copies of questionnaires, sample tests, etc.), checks the risk level and each member signs with the date they approve the project. This review and the date signed must be BEFORE any experimentation takes place.

  • Copies of the signed Form 4 are used to explain to the test subject and their guardian exactly what will happen to the subject if they participate in the project. If they approve, they sign with the date that they approve (BEFORE the experimentation begins).

  • Form 4 can be used by any researcher for photo permissions.

  • There is no such thing as NO RISKS. If no risks are anticipated, then use the phrase, “No Known Risks.”

  • Any survey or questionnaire must accompany a consent form home for parent’s consent.

  • High risk groups include: children/minors, prisoners, pregnant women, mentally disabled persons, or economically or educational disadvantaged persons.

  • More than minimal risk activities include:

    • Exercise other than ordinarily encountered in daily life by that subject.

    • Ingestion of any substance or exposure to any potentially hazardous materials.

    • Any activity or experimental condition that could potentially result in emotional stress.

    • Any activity that could potentially result in negative consequences for the subject due to invasion of privacy or breech of confidentiality.


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Vertebrate Animals

When students conduct research with animal subjects, the health and well-being of the animal subjects must be protected. There are federal regulations protecting animal subjects and therefore, prior review of vertebrate animal research by a Scientific Review Committee is required.

Vertebrate Animal research includes projects involving:

  • Live, nonhuman vertebrate mammalian embryos or fetuses

  • Bird and reptile eggs within three days (72 hours) of hatching

  • All other nonhuman vertebrates at hatching or birth

    Vertebrate Animal research projects are now categorized into two categories, those that can be done at a non-regulated site and those that must be done at a regulated research institution.

  • Vertebrate animal studies may be conducted at a non-regulated research site (home, school, farm, ranch, in the field, etc.) ONLY if each of the following applies:

    • The research involves behavioral, observational or supplemental nutritional studies on animals

      AND

    • The research involves only non-invasive and non-intrusive methods that do not negatively affect an animal’s health or well-being.

  • All other studies using vertebrate animals must be conducted in a regulated research institution.


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Tips for Vertebrate Animal Research Projectsat Non-regulated Sites

  • Form 5A is filled out by the researcher and describes the type and number of animals being used in the study, the housing and husbandry to be provided, and what will happen to the animals after experimentation.

  • The SRC must decide what type of supervision the project requires:

    • A Designated Supervisor is not required for a Vertebrate Animal study is when it involves animals in their natural environment, as well as animals in zoos, where there is no interaction between the experimenter and the subject animals. Otherwise, a Designated Supervisor is required to be responsible for the quality of care and handling of the animals in the project.

    • A Veterinarian is not required for all Vertebrate Animal studies, but is recommended for experiments that involve supplemental nutrition and/or activities that would not be ordinarily encountered in the animal’s daily life.

    • A Qualified Scientist is not required for all Vertebrate Animal studies, but may be suggested by the SRC.

  • If there are unexpected deaths in either the experimental or control groups, the cause of the death must be investigated. If the experimental procedure is responsible for the deaths, the experiment must be immediately terminated. A death rate of 30% or greater in any group or subgroup is not permitted and the project will fail to qualify for competition.


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Tips for Vertebrate Animal Research Projectsat Regulated Research Institutes

  • Form 5B is filled out by the Qualified Scientist or Principle Investigator at the regulated research institute

  • A copy of the regulated research institution IACUC approval letter must be attached to this form.

  • The Qualified Scientist must describe the USDA Pain category that the research falls under.

  • The local SRC must also review the project to certify that the research complies with ISEF rules. This review should happen before experimentation begins.

  • The following types of studies on vertebrate animals are prohibited:

    • All induced toxicity studies such as those using alcohol, acid rain, insecticide, herbicide, heavy metals, etc.

    • Behavioral experiments involving operant conditioning with averse stimuli, mother/infant separation or induced helplessness

    • Studies of pain

    • Predator/prey experiments

  • Proper euthanasia at the end of experimentation for tissue removal and/or pathological analysis is permitted. Only the Qualified Scientist of an institutional representative may perform the euthanasia.


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Potentially HazardousBiological Agents

Projects incorporating microorganisms, recombinant DNA technologies, or human or animal fresh tissues, blood, or body fluids may involve working with potentially hazardous biological agents. Students are permitted to do research projects with potentially hazardous biological agents as long as every effort is made to ensure that they work safely and that the projects meet the conditions and rules described in the rulebook.

Pathogenic or potentially hazardous biological agents research includes projects involving :

  • Bacteria, Viruses, Viroids, Prions, Rickettsia, Fungi, Parasites, etc.

  • Organisms collected and cultured from any environment

  • Raw or partially-processed human or animal wastes

  • Recombinant DNA

  • Human or Animal fresh tissue, blood or body fluids


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Tips for Pathogenic Research Projects

  • Experimentation with potentially hazardous biological agents, even BSL-1 organisms, is prohibited in a home environment. However, specimens may be collected at home as long as they are immediately transported to a laboratory with the appropriate level of biosafety containment.

  • Purchased cultures certified by the supplier as being non-pathogenic must be identified with full name, source and ATCC identification number or written documentation from the supplier in the Research Plan.

  • All cultured materials must be autoclaved or incinerated at the end of experimentation.

  • Studies intended to produce bacteria with multiple antibiotic resistance are prohibited.

  • Research with unknown microorganisms (collections from the environment) can be treated as a BSL-1 under the following conditions:

    • Organism is cultured in a plastic Petri dish and sealed.

    • Experimentation involves only procedures in which the Petri dish remains sealed throughout the experiment.

    • The sealed Petri dish is disposed of in the appropriate manner.

  • If a culture is opened for identification, sub-culturing or isolation, it must be treated as a BSL-2 study and involve BSL-2 laboratory procedures.


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Controlled Substances

Students may do research involving controlled substances, but they must be acquired and used according to existing local, state and federal laws.

Controlled substance research includes projects involving, but not limited to:

  • DEA classed substances

  • Prescription Drugs

  • Consumable Ethyl Alcohol

  • Tobacco


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Tips for Controlled Substances Research Projects

  • Production of consumable ethyl alcohol is federally regulated and students must contact the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for regulations.

  • Students may use federally-controlled medications, including prescriptions and experimental substances only under the direct supervision of a Qualified Scientist.

  • Students under the age of 21 are prohibited by federal and most state laws from purchasing and/or handling explosive materials, including smokeless powder or black powder for science projects.


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Tips for Research Projects using Hazardous Substances and/or Devices

  • Identify ALL hazardous substance and/or devices the student might be using with a project and what safety precautions will be taken to ensure the research’s safety.

  • If firearms and/or bows and arrows are used, it is important that you include a copy of the student’s and supervisor’s Colorado Hunter Safety Card.

  • Designated Supervisors need to be qualified to supervise the student in the use of the substance and/or device and this qualification needs to be explained.

  • Being Mom or Dad is not necessarily qualification enough to supervise a project using hazardous chemicals or devices.


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Suggested Resources Devices

  • International Rules For Precollege Science Research – from Science Service

  • Science Inquiry Toolkit -http://www.ctlt.org/projects/leaders_in_learning/table_of_contents.php

  • Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards – from National Academy Press

  • Science Experiments by the Hundreds – ISBN 0-7872-1574-0

  • Students and Research: Practical Strategies for Science Classroom and Competitions – ISBN 0-7872-6477-6



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