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Application Essays For High School Examples Of The Scientific Method

Pursuing an independent science, math, or engineering project during high school makes for a unique learning experience, and entering a project in one or more of the advanced competitions, which are akin to the Super Bowl or to the Academy Awards, offers students the opportunity to obtain even more.

Reason 1: Polish Your College Application

Perhaps foremost, succeeding in the top high school competitions creates a point of distinction and differentiation on college applications. For example, the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search (now the Regeneron Science Talent Search) Finalists ended up attending these colleges:

CollegeNumber of Attendees
Duke, Yale, Columbia, UC Berkeley,
Arizona, Johns Hopkins, Wesleyan
1 each

We're not saying that students should only aspire to attend these colleges. You can get an equivalent or better education in many other places, but we know that most of these schools are very selective. We also don't mean to say that these finalists were accepted solely based on their Science Talent Search status; but rather, to emphasize that college admissions officers know that students who compete and receive recognition in the top science competitions have a set of skills that sets them apart from their peers, which is extremely helpful during the college admissions process.

Reason 2: Meet Students with Shared Interests

Doing a science project and participating in a competition gives students an opportunity to meet and spend time with others who have the same interests that they do. "Most of the other students are normal kids who just happen to like science. They're not all a bunch of geeks," says an Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF) participant. And, a Siemens Competition finalist describes her peers with equal enthusiasm, "These people are so cool!"

Reason 3: Win Scholarships

  • $4M in awards and scholarships are handed out every year at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF).
  • $1M in awards and scholarships go to the semifinalist and finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS).
  • The Siemens Competition grants over $600,000 in scholarships with a top award of $100,000.

Reason 4: Helps Win Merit Awards

Participating in a science competition helps you win other scholarships as well. Much like the case with college admissions, competing and receiving recognition in science competitions creates a point of distinction on a merit scholarship application.

Reason 5: It's Fun

"The best week of my entire life!" says an Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF) participant.

Reason 6: Learn a Ton

Aside from learning about an area of science, math, or technology, advanced projects develop skills in a number of areas that are valuable for college and beyond:

  • Planning and time-management skills
  • Research skills, such as the scientific method and statistics
  • Writing skills
  • Presentation and communication skills

Reason 7: Acknowledgement and Recognition

Athletes, musicians, even good spellers have competitions that offer acknowledgement and recognition for excellence. Science competitions offer acknowledgement and recognition for students excited by math, science, and engineering.

Reason 8: Time Off from School!

If you are one of the more than 1000 students who qualify for the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF) you will get a week off of school, with an all-expenses-paid trip to the competition.

Reason 9: Rock Star

"It's like being a rock star, except [it's] science!" – Siemens Competition finalist.

Keys to Get Started

In our Advanced Project Guide, Science Buddies has a wealth of information to help students find a project idea and be successful at the top competitions, but we can summarize the keys to success in a few bullet points. The most successful students:
  • Have an original project.
  • Have a mentor or someone who can answer questions. You might be wondering if you have to have a mentor or coach. Not necessarily, but most of the winners do. See How to Find a Mentor.
  • Have the support of their parents.
  • Work hard. Often, students start on a small project, enjoy it, and only then commit to a larger time commitment as their knowledge and experience grows.

Successful students also display a good deal of resourcefulness and persistence. Resourcefulness is all about making do with what you've got. If you are not close to a research university, do a project that does not require a laboratory or do your research while attending a summer research program. If money is tight, do a project that does not require materials or supplies, such as a mathematics project, one using public databases (astronomy and genomics have many such databases), or one in computer software. Every researcher runs into problems. Something will go wrong; you must be prepared to surmount it.

...remember, the brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They're there to stop the other people. — Randy Pausch's Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams

There are many different tactics for conducting independent research. Some students work in a lab with a mentor during the summer or after school. Others participate in a summer research program for high school students, hosted at a college or university (many of these programs have scholarships). Some projects can be performed at home, with or without guidance from a mentor, and some high schools even offer independent research classes. Students writing in our Blogs about Advanced Competitions have used a variety of these strategies.

There are several potential concerns that students might have:

  • "It sounds like too much work" or "I don't have time." The secret is to do a project in an area that is of interest to you. Your hobby might literally become your work. And, when you are working on a project of your own, in an area that fascinates you, you'll be amazed how efficiently you can manage your time.
  • "I don't have an idea for a project!" Fortunately, we've got help at: Roundtable on Finding an Idea for an Advanced Project.

Students can benefit tremendously from doing an independent research project. And, participation in the top competitions offers the possibility of adding icing on the cake.

Support for Science Buddies provided by:


This article presents a detailed guide for high school through graduate level instructors that leads students to write effective and well-organized scientific papers. Interesting research emerges from the ability to ask questions, define problems, design experiments, analyze and interpret data, and make critical connections. This process is incomplete, unless new results are communicated to others because science fundamentally requires peer review and criticism to validate or discard proposed new knowledge. Thus, a concise and clearly written research paper is a critical step in the scientific process and is important for young researchers as they are mastering how to express scientific concepts and understanding. Moreover, learning to write a research paper provides a tool to improve science literacy as indicated in the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards (1996), and A Framework for K–12 Science Education (2011), the underlying foundation for the Next Generation Science Standards currently being developed. Background information explains the importance of peer review and communicating results, along with details of each critical component, the Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. Specific steps essential to helping students write clear and coherent research papers that follow a logical format, use effective communication, and develop scientific inquiry are described.


A key part of the scientific process is communication of original results to others so that one's discoveries are passed along to the scientific community and the public for awareness and scrutiny.1–3 Communication to other scientists ensures that new findings become part of a growing body of publicly available knowledge that informs how we understand the world around us.2 It is also what fuels further research as other scientists incorporate novel findings into their thinking and experiments.

Depending upon the researcher's position, intent, and needs, communication can take different forms. The gold standard is writing scientific papers that describe original research in such a way that other scientists will be able to repeat it or to use it as a basis for their studies.1 For some, it is expected that such articles will be published in scientific journals after they have been peer reviewed and accepted for publication. Scientists must submit their articles for examination by other scientists familiar with the area of research, who decide whether the work was conducted properly and whether the results add to the knowledge base and are conveyed well enough to merit publication.2 If a manuscript passes the scrutiny of peer-review, it has the potential to be published.1 For others, such as for high school or undergraduate students, publishing a research paper may not be the ultimate goal. However, regardless of whether an article is to be submitted for publication, peer review is an important step in this process. For student researchers, writing a well-organized research paper is a key step in learning how to express understanding, make critical connections, summarize data, and effectively communicate results, which are important goals for improving science literacy of the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards,4 and A Framework for K–12 Science Education,5 and the Next Generation Science Standards6 currently being developed and described in The NSTA Reader's Guide to A Framework for K–12 Science Education.7Table 1 depicts the key skills students should develop as part of the Science as Inquiry Content Standard. Table 2 illustrates the central goals of A Framework for K–12 Science Education Scientific and Engineering Practices Dimension.

Table 1.

Key Skills of the Science as Inquiry National Science Education Content Standard

Table 2.

Important Practices of A Framework for K–12 Science Education Scientific and Engineering Practices Dimension

Scientific papers based on experimentation typically include five predominant sections: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. This structure is a widely accepted approach to writing a research paper, and has specific sections that parallel the scientific method. Following this structure allows the scientist to tell a clear, coherent story in a logical format, essential to effective communication.1,2 In addition, using a standardized format allows the reader to find specific information quickly and easily. While readers may not have time to read the entire research paper, the predictable format allows them to focus on specific sections such as the Abstract, Introduction, and Discussion sections. Therefore, it is critical that information be placed in the appropriate and logical section of the report.3

Guidelines for Writing a Primary Research Article


The Title sends an important message to the reader about the purpose of the paper. For example, Ethanol Effects on the Developing Zebrafish: Neurobehavior and Skeletal Morphogenesis8 tells the reader key information about the content of the research paper. Also, an appropriate and descriptive title captures the attention of the reader. When composing the Title, students should include either the aim or conclusion of the research, the subject, and possibly the independent or dependent variables. Often, the title is created after the body of the article has been written, so that it accurately reflects the purpose and content of the article.1,3


The Abstract provides a short, concise summary of the research described in the body of the article and should be able to stand alone. It provides readers with a quick overview that helps them decide whether the article may be interesting to read. Included in the Abstract are the purpose or primary objectives of the experiment and why they are important, a brief description of the methods and approach used, key findings and the significance of the results, and how this work is different from the work of others. It is important to note that the Abstract briefly explains the implications of the findings, but does not evaluate the conclusions.1,3 Just as with the Title, this section needs to be written carefully and succinctly. Often this section is written last to ensure it accurately reflects the content of the paper. Generally, the optimal length of the Abstract is one paragraph between 200 and 300 words, and does not contain references or abbreviations.


All new research can be categorized by field (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics, geology) and by area within the field (e.g., biology: evolution, ecology, cell biology, anatomy, environmental health). Many areas already contain a large volume of published research. The role of the Introduction is to place the new research within the context of previous studies in the particular field and area, thereby introducing the audience to the research and motivating the audience to continue reading.1

Usually, the writer begins by describing what is known in the area that directly relates to the subject of the article's research. Clearly, this must be done judiciously; usually there is not room to describe every bit of information that is known. Each statement needs one or more references from the scientific literature that supports its validity. Students must be reminded to cite all references to eliminate the risk of plagiarism.2 Out of this context, the author then explains what is not known and, therefore, what the article's research seeks to find out. In doing so, the scientist provides the rationale for the research and further develops why this research is important. The final statement in the Introduction should be a clearly worded hypothesis or thesis statement, as well as a brief summary of the findings as they relate to the stated hypothesis. Keep in mind that the details of the experimental findings are presented in the Results section and are aimed at filling the void in our knowledge base that has been pointed out in the Introduction.

Materials and Methods

Research utilizes various accepted methods to obtain the results that are to be shared with others in the scientific community. The quality of the results, therefore, depends completely upon the quality of the methods that are employed and the care with which they are applied. The reader will refer to the Methods section: (a) to become confident that the experiments have been properly done, (b) as the guide for repeating the experiments, and (c) to learn how to do new methods.

It is particularly important to keep in mind item (b). Since science deals with the objective properties of the physical and biological world, it is a basic axiom that these properties are independent of the scientist who reported them. Everyone should be able to measure or observe the same properties within error, if they do the same experiment using the same materials and procedures. In science, one does the same experiment by exactly repeating the experiment that has been described in the Methods section. Therefore, someone can only repeat an experiment accurately if all the relevant details of the experimental methods are clearly described.1,3

The following information is important to include under illustrative headings, and is generally presented in narrative form. A detailed list of all the materials used in the experiments and, if important, their source should be described. These include biological agents (e.g., zebrafish, brine shrimp), chemicals and their concentrations (e.g., 0.20 mg/mL nicotine), and physical equipment (e.g., four 10-gallon aquariums, one light timer, one 10-well falcon dish). The reader needs to know as much as necessary about each of the materials; however, it is important not to include extraneous information. For example, consider an experiment involving zebrafish. The type and characteristics of the zebrafish used must be clearly described so another scientist could accurately replicate the experiment, such as 4–6-month-old male and female zebrafish, the type of zebrafish used (e.g., Golden), and where they were obtained (e.g., the NIEHS Children's Environmental Health Sciences Core Center in the WATER Institute of the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee). In addition to describing the physical set-up of the experiment, it may be helpful to include photographs or diagrams in the report to further illustrate the experimental design.

A thorough description of each procedure done in the reported experiment, and justification as to why a particular method was chosen to most effectively answer the research question should also be included. For example, if the scientist was using zebrafish to study developmental effects of nicotine, the reader needs to know details about how and when the zebrafish were exposed to the nicotine (e.g., maternal exposure, embryo injection of nicotine, exposure of developing embryo to nicotine in the water for a particular length of time during development), duration of the exposure (e.g., a certain concentration for 10 minutes at the two-cell stage, then the embryos were washed), how many were exposed, and why that method was chosen. The reader would also need to know the concentrations to which the zebrafish were exposed, how the scientist observed the effects of the chemical exposure (e.g., microscopic changes in structure, changes in swimming behavior), relevant safety and toxicity concerns, how outcomes were measured, and how the scientist determined whether the data/results were significantly different in experimental and unexposed control animals (statistical methods).

Students must take great care and effort to write a good Methods section because it is an essential component of the effective communication of scientific findings.


The Results section describes in detail the actual experiments that were undertaken in a clear and well-organized narrative. The information found in the Methods section serves as background for understanding these descriptions and does not need to be repeated. For each different experiment, the author may wish to provide a subtitle and, in addition, one or more introductory sentences that explains the reason for doing the experiment. In a sense, this information is an extension of the Introduction in that it makes the argument to the reader why it is important to do the experiment. The Introduction is more general; this text is more specific.

Once the reader understands the focus of the experiment, the writer should restate the hypothesis to be tested or the information sought in the experiment. For example, “Atrazine is routinely used as a crop pesticide. It is important to understand whether it affects organisms that are normally found in soil. We decided to use worms as a test organism because they are important members of the soil community. Because atrazine damages nerve cells, we hypothesized that exposure to atrazine will inhibit the ability of worms to do locomotor activities. In the first experiment, we tested the effect of the chemical on burrowing action.”

Then, the experiments to be done are described and the results entered. In reporting on experimental design, it is important to identify the dependent and independent variables clearly, as well as the controls. The results must be shown in a way that can be reproduced by the reader, but do not include more details than needed for an effective analysis. Generally, meaningful and significant data are gathered together into tables and figures that summarize relevant information, and appropriate statistical analyses are completed based on the data gathered. Besides presenting each of these data sources, the author also provides a written narrative of the contents of the figures and tables, as well as an analysis of the statistical significance. In the narrative, the writer also connects the results to the aims of the experiment as described above. Did the results support the initial hypothesis? Do they provide the information that was sought? Were there problems in the experiment that compromised the results? Be careful not to include an interpretation of the results; that is reserved for the Discussion section.

The writer then moves on to the next experiment. Again, the first paragraph is developed as above, except this experiment is seen in the context of the first experiment. In other words, a story is being developed. So, one commonly refers to the results of the first experiment as part of the basis for undertaking the second experiment. “In the first experiment we observed that atrazine altered burrowing activity. In order to understand how that might occur, we decided to study its impact on the basic biology of locomotion. Our hypothesis was that atrazine affected neuromuscular junctions. So, we did the following experiment..”

The Results section includes a focused critical analysis of each experiment undertaken. A hallmark of the scientist is a deep skepticism about results and conclusions. “Convince me! And then convince me again with even better experiments.” That is the constant challenge. Without this basic attitude of doubt and willingness to criticize one's own work, scientists do not get to the level of concern about experimental methods and results that is needed to ensure that the best experiments are being done and the most reproducible results are being acquired. Thus, it is important for students to state any limitations or weaknesses in their research approach and explain assumptions made upfront in this section so the validity of the research can be assessed.


The Discussion section is the where the author takes an overall view of the work presented in the article. First, the main results from the various experiments are gathered in one place to highlight the significant results so the reader can see how they fit together and successfully test the original hypotheses of the experiment. Logical connections and trends in the data are presented, as are discussions of error and other possible explanations for the findings, including an analysis of whether the experimental design was adequate. Remember, results should not be restated in the Discussion section, except insofar as it is absolutely necessary to make a point.

Second, the task is to help the reader link the present work with the larger body of knowledge that was portrayed in the Introduction. How do the results advance the field, and what are the implications? What does the research results mean? What is the relevance?1,3

Lastly, the author may suggest further work that needs to be done based on the new knowledge gained from the research.

Supporting Documentation and Writing Skills

Tables and figures are included to support the content of the research paper. These provide the reader with a graphic display of information presented. Tables and figures must have illustrative and descriptive titles, legends, interval markers, and axis labels, as appropriate; should be numbered in the order that they appear in the report; and include explanations of any unusual abbreviations.

The final section of the scientific article is the Reference section. When citing sources, it is important to follow an accepted standardized format, such as CSE (Council of Science Editors), APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Language Association), or CMS (Chicago Manual of Style). References should be listed in alphabetical order and original authors cited. All sources cited in the text must be included in the Reference section.1

When writing a scientific paper, the importance of writing concisely and accurately to clearly communicate the message should be emphasized to students.1–3 Students should avoid slang and repetition, as well as abbreviations that may not be well known.1 If an abbreviation must be used, identify the word with the abbreviation in parentheses the first time the term is used. Using appropriate and correct grammar and spelling throughout are essential elements of a well-written report.1,3 Finally, when the article has been organized and formatted properly, students are encouraged to peer review to obtain constructive criticism and then to revise the manuscript appropriately. Good scientific writing, like any kind of writing, is a process that requires careful editing and revision.1


A key dimension of NRC's A Framework for K–12 Science Education, Scientific and Engineering Practices, and the developing Next Generation Science Standards emphasizes the importance of students being able to ask questions, define problems, design experiments, analyze and interpret data, draw conclusions, and communicate results.5,6 In the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, we found the guidelines presented in this article useful for high school science students because this group of students (and probably most undergraduates) often lack in understanding of, and skills to develop and write, the various components of an effective scientific paper. Students routinely need to focus more on the data collected and analyze what the results indicated in relation to the research question/hypothesis, as well as develop a detailed discussion of what they learned. Consequently, teaching students how to effectively organize and write a research report is a critical component when engaging students in scientific inquiry.


1. Trevelyan R. Cook J. Fisher M. Scientific Writing and Publishing Results. Tropical Biology Association; Cambridge, UK: 2007.

2. Day RA. Gastel B. How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. 6th. Cambridge University Press; New York: 2006.

3. Dodd JS, editor. The ACS Style Guide: A Manual for Authors and Editors. 2nd. Oxford University Press; New York: 2005.

4. National Research Council. National Science Education Standards. The National Academies Press; Washington DC: 1996.

5. National Research Council. The National Academies Press; Washington DC: 2011. A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas.

6. Achieve: Next Generation Science Standards. 2011. http://www.nextgenscience.org/ [Oct 15;2012 ]. http://www.nextgenscience.org/

7. Pratt H. NSTA Press; Arlington, VA: 2012. The NSTA Reader's Guide to a Framework for K–12 Science Education.

8. Carvan MJ. Loucks E. Weber D. Williams FD. Ethanol effects on the developing zebrafish: Neurobehavior and skeletal morphogenesis. Neurotoxicol Teratol. 2004;26:757–768.[PubMed]

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