What is trendy in today’s science fair projects? | Science News for Students

What is trendy in today’s science fair projects?

We analyzed more than 19,000 science fair projects to find out
Mar 13, 2019 — 11:49 am EST
a girl testing a circuit board

Entrants in today’s science fairs are performing research in university labs and also doing award-winning work from home.

StefaNikolic/ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES PLUS

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When most people consider a science fair, they might think of baking soda volcanoes and model rockets. But these days, you’re far more likely to find new smartphone apps and computer programs. What’s hot and what’s not? We decided to crunch the data from the past 10 years of the Regeneron Science Talent Search to find out. It turns out that the key to finding a science fair project is sticking close to home.

The Science Talent Search, or STS, is arguably the premier U.S. science competition for high school students. And it has been almost since its founding in 1942 by Society for Science and the Public. (STS is now sponsored by Regeneron, a company that makes medications to treat diseases such as asthma and cancer.) Any U.S. high school senior can apply to STS. This year, nearly 2,000 did. Among the many items that entrants had to submit to qualify was a science-research project.

But there wasn’t a baking soda volcano in the bunch. Science has changed a lot in the last 77 years. We’ve gone from the space race and landing an astronaut on the moon to mapping the DNA blueprint of our species and many others. In the last 10 years, smartphones have put a camera and computer in nearly everyone’s hands. A simple home computer can now analyze big data from exoplanets millions of light-years away. 

And as science changes, science projects may, too. When it comes to the STS candidates, which topics have proven most popular? Science News for Students is run by the same organization as STS. So to answer this question, we dug into 10 years of data and almost 20,000 project submissions. The results have been graphed here.

Article continues below graph.

graph showing the number of Science Talent Search submissions in each category over the last 10 years
This graph shows the number of Science Talent Search submissions in each category over the last 10 years. Behavioral and social sciences, such as psychology, dominate with more than 300 submissions per year most years, while plant sciences languishes with only around 35.
B. Brookshire/SSP

Not surprisingly, the data show that the popularity of topics can shift widely over time.

Teens choose which category their project falls under, explains Alison Hewlett Stifel. She directs the competition. What topic they choose determines the type of scientist who will end up seeing their application first.

Say a teen’s project is both about plants and the environment. They might want to select “plant science” and know that a plant scientist will see it first. If they instead select “environmental science,” that’s the type of scientist who will take an initial read of their application.

It’s been a long time since the glory days of the space race. The most popular category now, by far, is behavioral and social sciences. Students working in these fields might study anything from how robots read emotions to techniques to shut down bullying.

The next most popular category is medicine and health. Here, teens might work in a laboratory with adult scientists to study new some new drug to treat a disease such as cancer. But they also might stay at home, developing a smartphone app to diagnose a particular disease. (Don’t think you need to study these most-popular topics to win, though. This year’s winner was an exoplanet hunter.)

Throughout the past decade, the number of engineering projects has gone up, Hewlett Stifel notes. There’s also been a big recent spike in cellular and molecular biology projects. Plants and Earth science, however, aren’t very popular topics. Both of those categories each bring in fewer than 40 STS applications per year — only about two percent.

Sudarshan Chawathe chaired the judging panel for this year’s STS competition. Although a computer scientist at the University of Maine in Orono, he feels sad to see so few plant science projects. “I guess it’s not considered sexy enough anymore,” he says. “It’s really sad for me. I think there’s so much interesting stuff there.”

The trend away from plants and toward medicine, health and engineering reflects more than teen interest, he says. It also reflects trends in research, generally. “This is guesswork,” he says, “but it would be hard to imagine that [teens] aren’t affected by [the work that mentors are up to].” A teen may work in a lab that has money to study cancer or HIV. “So they study cancer or HIV,” Chawathe notes. STS and science fair submissions, he says, likely “reflect what’s going on broadly in the scientific community.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell from the STS data exactly what teens would most like to study. But in her eight years working with the competition, Hewlett Stifel has observed a few trends. “Smartphone technologies are really interesting to teens,” she says. “It’s something personal to them.” She and Chawathe also noticed that increasingly teens are mining large, public data sets — from cancer data to exoplanets — to inspire their projects.

That means that many teens can do big science from home. They no longer need access to some lab at a nearby university or a study site. The real thing that inspires strong teen research, Hewlett Stifel finds, are issues, problems and questions that affect young scientists, their communities and their curiosity.

Smartphones, powerful computers and free access to meaningful data mean that more students can find new solutions to scientific mysteries.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

app     Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.

application     A particular use or function of something.

astronaut     Someone trained to travel into space for research and exploration.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

bullying     (v. to bully) A group of repeated behaviors that are mean-spirited. They can include teasing, spreading rumors about someone, saying hurtful things to someone and intentionally leaving someone out of groups or activities. Sometimes bullying can include attacks using violence (such as hitting), threats of violence, yelling at someone or abusing someone with violent language. Much bullying takes place in person. But it also may occur online, through emails or via text messages. Newer examples including making fake profiles of people on websites or posting embarrassing photos or videos on social media.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

computer program     A set of instructions that a computer uses to perform some analysis or computation. The writing of these instructions is known as computer programming.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

develop     To emerge or come into being, either naturally or through human intervention, such as by manufacturing. (in biology) To grow as an organism from conception through adulthood, often undergoing changes in chemistry, size and sometimes even shape.

diagnose     To analyze clues or symptoms in the search for their cause. The conclusion usually results in a diagnosis — identification of the causal problem or disease.

DNA     (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).

environmental science     The study of ecosystems to help identify environmental problems and possible solutions. Environmental science can bring together many fields including physics, chemistry, biology and oceanography to understand how ecosystems function and how humans can coexist with them in harmony. People who work in this field are known as environmental scientists.

exoplanet     Short for extrasolar planet, it’s a planet that orbits a star outside our solar system.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.

high school     A designation for grades nine through 12 in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.

HIV     (short for Human Immunodeficiency Virus) A potentially deadly virus that attacks cells in the body’s immune system and causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

light-year     The distance light travels in one year, about 9.48 trillion kilometers (almost 6 trillion miles). To get some idea of this length, imagine a rope long enough to wrap around the Earth. It would be a little over 40,000 kilometers (24,900 miles) long. Lay it out straight. Now lay another 236 million more that are the same length, end-to-end, right after the first. The total distance they now span would equal one light-year.

mentor     An individual who lends his or her experience to advise someone starting out in a field. In science, teachers or researchers often mentor students or younger scientists by helping them to refine their research questions. Mentors also can offer feedback on how young investigators prepare to conduct research or interpret their data.

model     A simulation of a real-world event (usually using a computer) that has been developed to predict one or more likely outcomes. Or an individual that is meant to display how something would work in or look on others.

moon     The natural satellite of any planet.

range     The full extent or distribution of something. For instance, a plant or animal’s range is the area over which it naturally exists. (in math or for measurements) The extent to which variation in values is possible. Also, the distance within which something can be reached or perceived.

robot     A machine that can sense its environment, process information and respond with specific actions. Some robots can act without any human input, while others are guided by a human.

rocket     Something propelled into the air or through space, sometimes as a weapon of war. A rocket usually is lofted by the release of exhaust gases as some fuel burns. (v.) Something that flings into space at high speed as if fueled by combustion.

Science Talent Search     An annual competition created and run by Society for Science & the Public. Begun in 1942, this event brings 40 research-oriented high school seniors to Washington, D.C. each year to showcase their research to the public and to compete for awards. Since spring 2016, this competition has been sponsored by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

Society for Science and the Public  A nonprofit organization created in 1921 and based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding, the Society has been promoting not only public engagement in scientific research but also the public understanding of science. It created and continues to run three renowned science competitions: the Regeneron Science Talent Search (begun in 1942), the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (initially launched in 1950) and Broadcom MASTERS (created in 2010). The Society also publishes award-winning journalism: in Science News (launched in 1922) and Science News for Students (created in 2003). Those magazines also host a series of blogs (including Eureka! Lab).

smartphone     A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the internet.

social science     The scientific study of people and their relationships to each other.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.