Glancing at your child's competition at the science fair, you cringe at how expensive other students' projects seem. One built a solar-powered robot from scratch. Another is coolly standing in front of a poster illuminated by strings of lights with an iPod playing background music.
Don't despair. Your kid can still do good science and win over the judges without emptying your wallet. In fact, the glamour of pricey projects won't substitute for experimental design and creativity. Although presentation matters, the quality of the project and your child's enthusiasm matter more. Whether a competition encourages fledgling scientists to describe nature or requires them to develop solutions to real-world problems, approaching a project with an organized, scientific mind-set will guide your kid through a process that's both enriching and fun.
Helping your child choose a topic that interests him will not only cut costs (because he'll approach the activity with more creativity), it also will ensure he sticks with it during the days and weeks to follow. Remember, low-cost science fair projects can even examine everyday questions your child may encounter. For example, do brand-name cereals really taste better than their generic counterparts? While scavenging the garage, he may question why new tennis balls seem to bounce higher than older ones [source: Bleeker].
Let's look at tips that spur creativity and keep costs down.
Think "Practical": Rock Collections, Not Rocket Science
Before choosing a science fair topic -- and buying supplies for it -- sit down with your child to review the school's rules and timeline. Discussing the parameters of a project beforehand will also help you determine whether an idea can be tested in a certain period of time and on budget.
With a practical mind-set, you and young Einstein can narrow the project's focus enough to prevent mix-ups along the way. Say your junior scientist wants to plant vegetable seedlings outside during the coldest month of winter. It's not feasible to conduct experiments unless you live in warm enough temperatures to dig into the ground. Instead, wait until the weather is warmer or pursue something else to avoid buying indoor heat lamps and other expensive supplies. You want to have nature and time on your side.
Thinking practically may also include framing projects around holidays. One middle school science fair project tested the rate at which Christmas tree needles fell off when dressed with different decorative lights [source: Glidden]. The experiment was practical: The student worked with a tree business to take unwanted treetops left over from the holidays. Her experiment suggested that one type of lights caused fewer needles to fall and even emitted less heat.
When it comes to buying supplies, keeping costs down may be as simple as using a calendar. Click to the next page to find out more.
Plan Ahead to Dodge Expensive Buys
Frantic, late-night trips to the store on Science Fair Eve not only chip away at your downtime, they can also put a dent in your wallet, as you're more likely to settle for more expensive supplies out of desperation.
You're a practical person, so avoid that trap by scoping out prices and sales in advance. The majority of projects require a final poster board or visual presentation that outlines your little prodigy's results. Most projects also call for scissors, tape, glue, ink cartridges for printing, rulers, jars, timers, thermometers, pencils and markers, among other things. If white tablecloths aren't provided at the fair, keep an eye out for an inexpensive material to place under your child's presentation, too.
The idea is to create shortcuts that won't compromise quality. Recycling supplies or paper might be less expensive and just as effective. Making your own supplies can save you some money as well. One wind turbine experiment uses a recycled, washed milk carton to act as the object's base [source: California Energy Commission]. Don't be afraid to be innovative. Buying supplies in bulk or encouraging students to team up for projects, if allowed, can defray costs, too.
Our next tip shows that science fair help is just a click or phone call away.
Browse Online and Community Resources
Enlist the Internet to help you find low-cost science fair projects that require minimal or cheaper supplies. Several government-sponsored, school and commercial education sites, including PBS Kids and Kids.gov, offer resources, so try perusing them first. In addition, magazines, online experiments and even TV shows can introduce students to ideas for their projects. Watching a science documentary on cable with your child costs less than purchasing guides or reference books.
Local universities and labs also boast outreach programs for students interested in a particular area of science. If your child has a focused experiment but needs special equipment, school and university labs might be able to lend a hand. Special microscopes and machines in these facilities can cost thousands of dollars, so asking to collaborate takes little away from your budget while improving the project.
For poster visuals, check with libraries and schools to see if students can borrow cameras to photograph their materials and track their experiment. Librarians and teachers are usually willing to help out in advance or can redirect you to a better option for your request. Visiting the public or school library gives you and your child access to search tools and background reading that might be behind a pay wall (and would cost money otherwise).
Search for inspiration everywhere -- even at home. Click to the next page to learn more.
Explore the House for Hidden Experiment Ideas
Your home's a hotspot for devising low-cost science fair projects. For instance, heading to the kitchen -- with an appetite for ideas, not food -- could help spark thoughts for the next affordable experiment.
Why? Because you probably own the majority of materials you need.
Try dedicating a portion of your family's weekly produce to a project to measure in which settings (fridge, counter or in a paper bag) fruit ripens the fastest and why [source: USDA]. Chemistry underlies cooking and baking, which also creates opportunities for experimentation. Several projects involve things lying around the kitchen, including measuring cups, glassware, salt, baking soda and flour. Just make sure you keep experiments nontoxic if you plan to reuse dishware.
Your child can also draw inspiration from the backyard or the local park, where the presence -- or lack thereof -- of certain plants and wildlife may warrant study.
The last tip for low-cost projects requires an observant mind, above all.
Study Critters' or Classmates' Behaviors
Award-winning science fair projects don't have to focus on hard science or gadgets. Observing people and animals can be just as interesting -- and cheap.
Students can study the behavior of classmates or adults. In fact, a project that did well at the largest high school science competition, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, focused on how people perceive awards [source: National Institute on Drug Abuse]. Most of the student's data was probably inexpensive to gather because she conducted surveys and interviewed participants herself. Similar projects may call for outlining an experiment on a consent form and having participants sign and agree to partake. What's costly, however, is the time and effort budding scientists should set aside for these types of projects. Poor time management often stands in the way of kids putting forth their best work [source: Glidden].
In the same spirit, students may choose to study insects' behaviors at different times of the day in their backyards or record their reactions in controlled experiments to stimuli such as food and habitat changes with the guidance of a teacher. Students could even look at their classmates' eating habits in the lunchroom to track relationships between food choices and exams or the weather. Memory experiments are feasible and require few materials as well.
Keep reading for more articles you might like (and they won't cost you a dime).
Dollar stores — where most items cost just a buck — always seem to make money. HowStuffWorks finds out how they do it.
- Bleeker, Lynne. "Successful Science Fair Projects." Neuroscience For Kids. (Sept. 29, 2011) http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/fair.html
- California Energy Commission. "Science Projects: Make a Turbine." Energy Quest Room. 2006. (Sept. 29, 2011) http://www.energyquest.ca.gov/projects/turbine.html
- Discovery Education. "Parent Resources." Science Fair Central. (Sept. 29, 2011). http://school.discoveryeducation.com/sciencefaircentral/Parent-Resources.html
- Glidden, Michele. "Low-Cost Science Fair Projects." Personal interview. Sept. 30, 2011.
- Kids.gov. "Science Fair Projects." U.S. General Services Administration. Oct. 7, 2011. (Oct. 11, 2011) http://www.kids.gov/6_8/6_8_science_projects.shtml
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Altruistic Decision Making Focus of NIDA's Addiction Science Award." May 13, 2011. (Sept. 29, 2011) http://drugabuse.gov/newsroom/11/NR5-13.html
- Public Broadcasting Services. "DragonflyTV." Twin Cities Public Television. (Oct. 11, 2011). http://pbskids.org/dragonflytv/index.html
- South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. "Science Fair Project Guidebook." March 2011. (Oct. 9, 2011). http://www.scdhec.gov/environment/lwm/recycle/pubs/best_sfpg.pdf
- United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Services. "Agricultural Ideas for Science Fair Projects." Sci4Kids. (Sept. 29, 2011) http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/kids/fair/ideasframe.htm