Science fair!
September 11, 2006 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Help with a science fair project idea

My friend's kid is 9 years old, working on a science fair project. He wants to do it on "metabolism"... This type of project is supposed to answer a question... So what question could he be answering? and some ideas on the experiment too... Thanks! (think 6th grade-ish level...)
posted by sindas to Science & Nature (16 answers total)
My science project in the 5th grade was:

Does exercise increase body temperature?

It won me a spot at the county science fair. :)
posted by LoriFLA at 2:22 PM on September 11, 2006

Seriously, not at all a snark: Have the kid go to the library and ask the librarian where he should look. There are *dozens* of books of science project ideas, for exactly this type of question. (Go to Amazon and search for "science project" and see the pages and pages of results.)

It would be good for him to read up and decide for himself what would be more interesting. Science fairs are great for exactly this reason, getting to find a project and follow it through on your own allows you to feel like you own it, and see what it's like to engage with a project that's a little longer-term than what you usually get to do in school.

I don't have any good ideas for a manageable-sized experimental (as opposed to research/calculations) project on metabolism. But he could think also about experiments that show fuel being used up by a fire or reaction, since that's basically what metabolism is. *With help from parents* he could test how fast same-sized samples of different materials burn, or what conditions affect how fast samples of a single kind of fuel burn.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:35 PM on September 11, 2006

how about an experiment using a calorimeter and recording readings from different types of foodstuffs.
posted by tnai at 2:40 PM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

how about something like yeast metabolism produces CO2 gas (just like humans do).

Take some empty soda bottles, 3/4 fill with nutritive water solution (e.g. +/- flour +/- sugar - you may want to vary and also use plain water), add some bakers yeast to each bottle, and fit a pre-streached long baloon (the type used in baloon sculptures) to each neck.

The more metabolism going on in each bottle, the more the baloon will inflate.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 2:42 PM on September 11, 2006

If you search AskMefi, people ask lots of questions about metabolism, mostly related to exercise/fitness/aging. So I would suggest a Mythbusters approach - picking one of the exercising memes, and thinking of a way to verify whether it is myth or truth.
Obesity is teh Big Issue in medicine/health right now, so anything that can be tied into that might get extra points :)
posted by -harlequin- at 3:09 PM on September 11, 2006

<joke tone="lighthearted">
A nine year old in the sixth grade? Seems to me he's smart enough to figure it out on his own.
posted by Merdryn at 3:16 PM on September 11, 2006

Response by poster: his school shoots for higher quality projects from their students...
posted by sindas at 3:19 PM on September 11, 2006

Here are a couple hints from a former science fair geek and current metabolism geek.

- Make the topic as medically relevant as possible for the most "hype" factor. For example, I like MonkeySaltedNuts' idea, but you could use the amount of sugar as a variable and link that to sugar associated diseases (e.g. diabetes). The more accurate the link the better (this one is a bit sketchy, off the top of my head), but having some link like this will really help sell the project. I know its a bit shallow, but you'd be surprised how far a *decent* project combined with some hype can get you.

- Consider a survey type experiment dealing with known risk factors / habits etc. For example, one of the most common questions I get from non-scientists is with regards to metabolism and weight / dieting. Things like does XX diet really work. While going to deep into the metabolic theory may not be ideal for a 6th grade project, it would be possible to do a survey of people in the neighbourhood / family / friends/ parents of other students which could look at some simple outcomes (did people lose weight? did they keep it off? how long?)

- I like the previous suggestions for thermal experiments and exercise outputs. The calorimeter is indeed the right way to test energy content. Other suggestions suitable for this level might include growing plants (could be one kind, could be a few kinds) with different energy sources (glucose, plant food etc). Or maybe a gender based study (do girls and boys react differently to some factor). Since metabolism is a very broad area, there are a lot of possible experiments - your best bet might be to first narrow down a little bit.

Good luck!
posted by ThinkNut at 3:22 PM on September 11, 2006

If he has some time before the fair, you could get him a few mice from the same litter. Seperate into two cages. Feed one food that has some portion of Corn Syrup as a sweetener, the others food that uses real sucrose as a sweetener to see if corn syrup as a sweetener is metabolized differently and causes more weight gain or not.
posted by lockle at 4:11 PM on September 11, 2006

Fear doing work with animals! Even with large numbers of experimental subjects the data is really noisy.

Also, 10 mice in one cage equals 1 replicate not 10 becasue the bigest mouse makes a hog of himself.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:06 PM on September 11, 2006

Back in the day, I did my science projects on plant growth such as the types of experiments that jamaro mentioned. There are ample ways to explore plant growth and metabolism through types of soil, temperature, light, fertilizers, watering times, etc. Just remember to have a "control" group on which to base your results. There are all sorts of agricultural applications for a project such as this. Or, to keep it current, get ahold of some GM (genetically modified) seeds and compare growth patterns to standard seeds.

As an unrelated note, I only won some minor awards through my science projects back in grade school, but watching the plants grow and actually "doing" science kickstarted my interest (and career) in the scientific field. Tell your friend to keep encouraging the kid to explore topics of interest!
posted by galimatias at 6:50 PM on September 11, 2006

I can't think of anything off the top of my head, but if he's aiming for high marks, something original is always better than something from a book or even someone else's idea. The judges will ask him "how did you get this idea" and "my parents' friend found some people on AskMe to think of topics" is probably not a good answer. So whatever he does, it should be something that relates to what he's interested in.

Having said that, the plant experiments that people suggested are probably very suitable for this level.
A plant experiment is more scientific than having people fill out questionnaires about their diets (and some schools don's allow people-based experiments anymore) so that is also something to consider.
And if he does something with plants, then take lots of pictures to put on the poster, because plants are sometimes not allowed in the display area at the fair (or check with the school if it is allowed)

IAASFD (I am a science fair judge...well, not full time of course.)
posted by easternblot at 8:20 PM on September 11, 2006

Ha. That should be IAASFJ.
This is why I judge science fairs and not spelling bees.
posted by easternblot at 8:21 PM on September 11, 2006

Don't forget that metabolism is the sum total of all chemical reactions in a cell - there's more than just burning sugar (catabolism). Making sugar (anabolism) is metabolism as well.

Bean sprouts hosted in different conditions (dark, light, with fertilizer, without, etc.) will incorporate different amounts of chemicals into their systems - this is metabolism. Comparisons can be made by carefully drying and then weighing individual plants. It's pretty easy in terms of technology and setup, and is good because it works on an oft-overlooked part of metabolism. We all automatically hear the word and think "digestion" when there's more to it than that.

(says the guy who just finished writing a 2-hour college intro bio lecture on metabolism)
posted by caution live frogs at 9:56 PM on September 11, 2006

Build a focault pendulum and have it trace a path in a tray of sand. Use it to prove the earth's rotation. Beats the old baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano any day of the week.

Additionally... you can purcase flourescent invisible detection powder online from scientific and forensic suppliers - it's used for fingerprinting. It doesn't show up when you spread it around, but it flouresces brightly under a blacklight.

Have the kid spread some around the spout of a single school water fountain at the start of the day. Toward the end of the day, have him check his classmates and teachers with a handheld blacklight. The results are amazing - use them as an analogy to the spread of germs.
posted by kaseijin at 12:31 PM on September 12, 2006

Granted, neither of those have to do with metabolism. But they *are* guaranteed high marks.
posted by kaseijin at 12:31 PM on September 12, 2006

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