Unusual Ideas for Science Fair Projects

Following are some weird, strange, cool, uncool, fun, funny, bizarre, unusual, politically incorrect, or just slightly different ideas for science fair projects. Let me know if you have questions or if you create a project based on one of these ideas.


Steps to Doing a Science Fair Project

Science Fair Project Ideas

    Audio

    Speech Melodies

    Sound Levels of iPods and MP3 Players, and Hearing Damage

    The Loudness War

    Effectiveness of Noise Masking for Improving Concentration and Reducing Distraction

    The Physics of Bird Song

    Acoustics and Fluid Dynamics of Household Plumbing

    Mosquito Direction Finder

    Nose Whistling Due to Booger Turbulence

    Biology

    The Genetics of Plant Morphology

    Biomimicry — Innovation Inspired by Nature

    Ants

    Venus Flytraps

    What's Growing in Your House?

    Flatulence

    Wrinkles

    Humor Genome Project

    Alien Biology

    Zombies

    Energy, Ecology

    Alternative Energy

    Global Warming

    Health and Medical

    Indoor air pollution from oil-filled electric heaters?

    Atmospheric SPF

    Do You Need to Drink Water after a Massage to Prevent Achy Muscles?

    Effectiveness of the Combination of Exercise and Meditation for Stress Reduction

    Why Do People Sleep Better when It's Raining?

    Medical Image Recognition

    Obesity and High-Fructose Corn Syrup

    What is an itch?

    Why Do People Weigh Less in the Morning?

    Physics

    Does Warmer Water Freeze Faster Than Colder Water?

    "I Loosened It"

    Radio-Controlled Flying Disc/Saucer

    The Feynman Reverse Sprinkler Problem

    Politically Incorrect Science Fair Projects

    Psychology

    Why Are Yawns Contagious?

    Positive Psychology

    Political Science / Mass Psychology

    The Evolution of Cooperation

    The Popularity of Science among School Children

Other Resources


Steps to doing a science fair project

  1. Start with a question, something you're genuinely curious about. This is the most important step — follow your curiosity!

  2. Do lots of research to get more ideas

  3. Develop a hypothesis

  4. Design an experiment

  5. Keep good records

  6. Analyze the results

  7. Develop a conclusion


Science Fair Project Ideas

Audio

Speech Melodies

Human speech is made up of vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and consonants (b, c, d, f, g, etc.). Consonants are typically noise-like (pops, bursts of air, etc.). Vowel sounds are tone-like: they have a pitch, or fundamental frequency, like a notes on a musical instrument. These pitches are produced by rapid vibrations of the vocal cord. For adult males, the fundamental frequency of voiced speech is typically in the 85 to 180 Hz range; for adult females, it may range from 165 to 255 Hz. Singing may cover a wider range.

When people speak, different syllables usually have different pitches. As with breathing, these pitch changes are generally made unconsciously. There are gender differences in vocal pitch aside from the frequency ranges involved. Generally speaking, males tend to speak in a somewhat more monotonic way, while women tend to make more expressive use of pitch. Some women have very melodious voices. If we think of speech as having a melody, it's almost as if they're writing a song, with melody and lyrics, each time they speak.

For example, I noticed this when listening to dialogue by the mother in the movie "As Good as It Gets", and when listening to a recording called "Radical Acceptance: Guided Meditations" by Tara Brach. In the latter recording, it seemed as if the speaker had a mental musical scale; one particular tone seemed to serve as the root or home base, with frequent excursions emphasizing the musical intervals of a fourth (frequency ratio of 4:3) and fifth (ratio of 3:2). Are these music-like intervals chosen because they're easier to make, more pleasant to listen to, or do they have some kind of (perhaps hard-to-define) meaning?

So the basic question is, why do we use pitch modulation when we speak? Does it help transfer the information we're trying to convey? Does it help transfer emotional information? If someone speaks with a very monotonic voice (few pitch changes), we may think of their speech as "monotonous", which can mean either lacking in pitch variation, or lacking in variety and interest, i.e., boring.

Could one design an experiment to tell whether information content is transferred more effectively with monotonic (robotic) voice, normal voice, exaggerated pitch changes, or random pitch changes? How do these types of pitch contours affect how the listener thinks of the speaker? Do they make the speaker seem more sincere or likeable? Do they make the content more or less believable?

Why did human speech evolve to use these pitch changes? Note that some languages, such as Chinese and Vietnamese, are "tonal", in which the same word can have different meanings depending on the pitch. In western languages, pitch changes can emphasize certain words. Often if we repeat similar or parallel phrases, we may repeat the same pitch contour, using the pitch to highlight the similarity between the concepts. In what other ways are pitch changes used? Does the amount of pitch modulation correlate to personality, or to psychological conditions such as depression?

In songwriting, melodies are often chosen for their attractiveness, but they also need to fit the meaning of the phrase, in ways that may be difficult to define or analyze. As a simple example, a songwriter is more likely to go up in pitch when singing the word "up", and lower in pitch for the word "down". There are software tools that can analyze the pitch of a melody and convert it to music notation or other forms. (This may be called "pitch-to-MIDI', etc.) What can we learn by analyzing song melodies in relation to the lyrics, and what can we learn by analyzing the (generally unconscious) melodies produced during speech?


Sound Levels of iPods and MP3 Players, and Hearing Damage

There seems to be a correlation between the prevalence of iPods and MP3 players and hearing damage. This may be causing a "silent epidemic" of hearing loss among young people. A recent study (see http://www.hearing.com.au/upload/Is%20Australia%20Listening.pdf), reported that 60% of Australians, especially at the younger ages, had reported "ringing of the ears," or tinnitus, an early warning sign of irreversible hearing damage. A study in the Netherlands (http://www.canada.com/montrealgazette/technology/story.html?id=5dda50e5-39b3-4d9f-be29-616636befbc3) showed that teens generally played their iPods at maximum volume, despite being aware that this could harm their hearing. More information is available in the AES paper and video, "The Loudness War: Background, Speculation and Recommendations," http://www.sfxmachine.com/docs/loudnesswar .

Headphone listeners in particular are more susceptible to hearing damage (such as hearing loss and tinnitus, or ringing of the ears), for a number of reasons:

  • Headphones often have poor bass response, so users tend to turn up the volume to compensate

  • With headphones, users don't feel the loud, thumping bass which tells the body that the music is really loud

  • There is less air absorption at the damaging high frequencies, because the sound doesn't have to travel across the room

  • The ears adapt to loud sounds faster over headphones, so users are tempted to keep turning up the volume

Hearing damage can be thought of as a type of repetitive stress disorder, and as with carpal tunnel syndrome, most people don't think about it until the damage is already done.

Can you measure the sound pressure level at which your fellow students commonly listen to music through headphones or ear buds? It is more difficult to measure the actual sound levels through ear buds, due to the small openings? Have the students experienced ringing of the ears? Can you measure their hearing? If so, can you detect preliminary signs of hearing loss? Is there a correlation between how long people listen and at what levels, and their hearing acuity?

Please be careful to make all experiments non-destructive; i.e., don't subject subjects to high loudness levels.


The Loudness War

The term "loudness war" refers to the ongoing increase in loudness of recorded music over the last 30 years or so. The problem is not the playback level, which is controlled by the end user; rather, the problem relates to the use of dynamic range compression to make songs seem louder than others with the same peak level. As a result, most commercially distributed music now has very little dynamic range. Hypercompressed music may also cause listening fatigue. More information about the loudness war is available in a video presentation, "The Loudness War: Background, Speculation and Recommendations," and the accompanying Audio Engineering Society paper, http://www.sfxmachine.com/docs/loudnesswar .

There is very little published research on these topics. Some double-blind studies that need to be done include:

  • Can listeners tell the difference between hypercompressed and mildly compressed music?
  • Does hypercompressed music cause listening fatigue?
  • How do listeners set the playback gain when playing hypercompressed vs. uncompressed music?
  • Is hypercompressed music more likely to cause hearing damage?
  • Does louder, hypercompressed music sell better than mildly compressed music?

Please be careful to make all experiments non-destructive; i.e., don't subject subjects to high loudness levels.

Effectiveness of Noise Masking for Improving Concentration and Reducing Distraction

Some people are more sensitive to noise than others. In particular, some people find it very difficult to concentrate when others are talking or playing music. Can you measure individual differences in this area?

While some people find it useful to play music to mask out unwanted conversations, others find music can be distracting as well, especially if it includes lyrics. Can you do controlled experiments to determine whether a conversation masking program, such as ChatterBlocker, would be helpful to reduce distraction and increase concentration? Is it more helpful than listening to music? Can useful results be achieved even at relatively low volume levels (and using speakers instead of headphones)? Is the effectiveness of the masking increased by the fact that the masking sounds are in stereo? What would be the best way to measure concentration and/or distraction?

Further information is available in the article "Coping with Speech Noise in the Modern Workplace." (Full disclosure: I'm the developer of the ChatterBlocker program.)

The Physics of Bird Song

Read the essays at http://www.museumofconceptualart.com/nature/birdsounds/birds.html and see if they give you any ideas for projects.

For example, how does the three-wattled bell-bird make its bell-like "bonk" sound. Is it producing two or three very similar tones at once, and if so, what mechanism is it using for this? Does it have multiple independent resonators, or is it using an audio frequency amplitude modulation?

Similarly, how does a thrush sing two-part harmonies with itself (like Cousin Ophelia of the Addams Family, who could sing three-part harmonies with herself)?

An excerpt from my essay on mockingbird song:

"I haven't analyzed mockingbird sounds on the computer yet, but I know they do pretty convincing imitations of thrushes who, having two sets of vocal apparatus, can sing harmony with themselves. If you record thrushes and slow them way down, you hear the most exquisite and haunting harmonies — little 4 or 5 note melodies harmonized in major and minor thirds. At any rate, mockingbirds can do amazing things with amplitude and frequency modulation. When recorded and slowed down to 1/4 speed, notes that initially sounded like trills and texture often turn out to be intricate melodic and rhythmic patterns."

Some birds (such as the thrush) have very fast, intricate and detailed melodies that only become apparent to humans when we record their songs and slow then down (for example, to 1/4 speed). Also, their hearts beat much faster than ours, their limbs (wings) move much faster than ours, and they live shorter lives. Do they think and sing and hear and live on a much faster time-scale than we do? Do most animals have approximately the same number of heart beats per life time (implying shorter lives for the ones with faster heartbeats)?

Some birds sing very tight duets with each other. How do they manage to time things so precisely?

How do parrots manage to produce human-like vocal sounds, despite presumably having a very different anatomy?

Why does a duck quack instead of making some other sound?

What kinds of sounds did dinosaurs make?

Did the Mayans intentionally engineer the steps of the pyramid at the Temple of Kukulkan, in Chichen Itza in Mexico, to sound like the voice of the Quetzal? And how is this "diffraction grating" acoustic effect related to the iridescence of the Quetzal's feathers?

Acoustics and Fluid Dynamics of Household Plumbing

If you turn on the hot water faucet, especially in a house with old plumbing, it may take quite a while for the water to get warm, due to the amount of cold water in the pipes and the thermal inertia of the pipes. Often when the water starts getting hot, the sound of the water flow changes. How does the spectrum of the sound change, and what causes this change? Is it due to a different number or size of air bubbles? Is it due to a change in the speed of sound between hot and cold water? Or is this phenomenon caused by something else?

Can you measure the spectrum of the sound and relate that in some way to the temperature of the water? In other words, can you invent a faucet thermometer that determines the water temperature by using sound? (To calibrate this, you may need a thermometer that can rapidly respond to temperature changes, ideally with a digital output that can be synchronized to the sound measurements.)

Of the time required for the water to get warm, how much is due to the amount of cold water in the pipes, and how much is due to the thermal inertia of the pipes? Can you estimate how much water is in the pipes, and how long it will take for the hot water to reach the faucet? Can you develop an equation that will predict the water temperature at the faucet based on the temperature of the water in the pipes, the temperature of the hot water (at the water heater), and the amount of water in the pipes (and/or the surface area of the pipes)? (This may or may not require some calculus.)


Mosquito Direction Finder

Sometimes it can be hard to locate a mosquito inside a room (for swatting purposes), because high-pitched, narrow-bandwidth sounds are difficult to localize. Is it possible to create a device or computer program for mosquito localization, possibly using a small number of microphones? Could acoustic reflections off of walls and ceilings make the sound seem to come from a different direction? Is it likely that an electronic device could improve upon the localization ability of human ears? Can measurement of delays of the Doppler shift caused by acceleration of the mosquito's motion help distinguish between the direct path and wall reflections? (This is a difficult project.)

 

Nose Whistling Due to Booger Turbulence

Sometimes (especially when you're trying to sleep) you may notice a whistling sound when you breathe in or out through your nose. This is presumably due to air turbulence, possibly due to boogers that disrupt the flow of air. Does this have anything to do with chaos theory? Is there any way to visualize this turbulence, or model the air flow and plot it (perhaps in a program like Matlab or Octave)?

Can you come up with a way to solve the problem (aside from the simplest solution, which would involve cleaning out the nasal passage)? Perhaps some kind of filter that would disrupt the chaotic air flow patterns?

Biology

The Genetics of Plant Morphology

Fractals can be used to program shapes resembling those of leaves (such as ferns) using a very small amount of data. It seems possible that plant DNA may encode these shapes in a very mathematical way.

On the other hand, we can't always count on nature to design things the way people would. (For example, the human hearing mechanism is one of the most bizarre things in the world, nothing like what a human engineer would come up with.)

Can you come up with a hypothesis for how leaf shapes might be encoded in plant DNA, and then search DNA databases for corroborating evidence? (Probably not, because this is a very advanced, grad student type project.)

Biomimicry — Innovation Inspired by Nature

See the video on 12 Sustainable Design Ideas from Nature, http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/janine_benyus_shares_nature_s_designs.html, view the introductory material at http://biomimicryinstitute.org/about-us/what-is-biomimicry.html, and search the Biomimicry database, http://database.portal.modwest.com/start.php.

Think of a problem that needs solving, and then research whether nature has already found a solution. Alternatively, start with a plant or animal that does something interesting or useful and figure out how it does that.

How do various plants and animals "make a living"? Is there anything we can learn from their methods of adaptation?


Ants

Do ants have friends? Does anyone notice if a couple of ants go missing during the day — do they do a head count at night? Or are most of them completely interchangeable?

 

Venus Flytraps

Is it true that Venus flytraps (a type of carnivorous plant) are only found within a small radius around some meteor craters near Wilmington, NC? What is the likelihood that these plants may have an extraterrestrial origin? More broadly, is there any way to estimate the probability that life on this planet may have been seeded from outer space?

What's Growing in Your House

Here's a mold samples reports of things that were growing in my house.

Flatulence

If pets farted as much as people do, people might not have pets. Why do people fart so much, and is there anything we can learn from studying animals that might help reduce our flatulence? For example, why are some animals less flatulent than others? How many times does the average person fart per day?

Are beans really the musical fruit, and how effective is Beano?

How could you collect a person's farts underwater (for example, in a bathtub) without the farts being contaminated by room air, and what kinds of experiments could you do with the collected farts? How much energy is produced, per liter, by pyroflatulation? How could you safely measure the energy production? (Do not light them directly at the source — people have been seriously burned from the resulting backfire.)

If farts were converted to energy and used to power a vehicle, how many miles (inches?) per fart could you get? How much flatulence do cows produce, and could this be a useful source of energy? Can you discover something that could be added to cattle feed to reduce the cow's methane production and resulting global warming?

Could methane discovered on Mars be microbe farts?

Would it be possible to invent a Fart Detector or Stinkometer that would use mass spectrometry or similar technologies to indicate whether a bathroom was safe for the next person? What chemical components are primarily responsible for the stinkiness of farts? One of the truly terrifying aspects of airplane travel involves sitting next to a frequent farter. Would it be possible to embed a fart detector in the seat cushions and use the output to flash an overhead light identifying the offender?

Benjamin Franklin, the great scientist, author, politician, inventor, and Founding Father of the United States, once wrote an essay called "Fart Proudly," in which he proposed research on how to improve the odor of human flatulence. Can you invent a "Fart Eaters" type product that would render one's farts inoffensive, unsmellable, and/or inaudible? This would be a great boon to mankind, and Franklin would be proud.

If you fart outside in very cold weather, is it possible to see your farts the way you can see your breath? Why or why not? (Hint: what is the freezing point of methane?) Is it true that methane doesn't actually smell and is not in fact a major component of farts?

What sorts of technologies might be used to visualize a person's farts in real time, and why would anyone want to do this?

Would it be possible to diagnose certain diseases by carefully smelling a patient's farts? If so, what types of diseases (besides chronic flatulence) might be diagnosed? Could this process be automated? (See "The Isotopic Fingerprint of Human-Emitted Methane," by Zach Elgood, Grade 7, for a study of how to use isotope ratios to distinguish human-emitted from atmospheric methane.)

Why do people prefer the smell of their own farts to that of other people's farts? Is their preference only psychological, because they know which fart was theirs? Can they really tell the difference, or do they only think they can? Would this preference hold up to double-blind testing?

What is the physics behind the fart sound? Farts have a wide variety of sonic effects, from squeaky to thundrous. Renowned writer James Joyce claimed he would be able to pick out his wife's farts from a roomful of farting women. Can you develop software or hardware that can analyze sonic and/or olfactory profiles and reliably determine who dealt it? Such a farter-recognition device might be useful in the field of biometrics — for example, to secure restricted areas from access by unauthorized personnel. Farter I.D. could also be used to sniff out terrorists.

Kurt Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians communicated by tap dancing and farting. The French professional farter Le Petomane made a career out of imitating musical instruments with his rear end. In Naked Lunch, noted degenerate William S. Burroughs wrote about a "talking a**hole." Would it be possible to train a person's rectum to talk or play music?

As a youth, Alexander Graham Bell taught a stray Skye Terrier to talk. By training the dog to growl on cue and then manually manipulating its mouth and throat, Bell could make him produce the phonemes "ow, ah, ooh, ga, ma, ma" to say "How are you, Grandmama?" Would it be possible to apply similar techniques toward the production of anal speech, and if so, would anyone care to hear what you had to say?

Would it be possible to simulate rear-end speech by using a vocoder, convolution, or similar audio digital signal processing techniques? For example, if you convolved speech with fart sounds, would it sound like talking farts? Could you combine text-to-speech software with a fart-speech synthesizer to produce an automated text-to-talking-butt converter? Fart-speech synthesis might be useful in making amusing remixes of speeches and conversations by pundits, politicians and other windbags.

Is there a way to study whether modern man farts more than ancient man did? Aristotle spoke of farts and believed they was caused by the consumption of meat and drinks. The Middle Ages were clearly a time of much farting, as documented by Chaucer. Shakespeare wrote, "A man may break a word with you, sir; and words are but wind; Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind."

Has every breath you take previously been farted out by someone else? (Similarly, has every glass of water previously been peed out by someone else? Comparing the amount of water one person pees in a lifetime to the total amount of water on earth, and assuming perfectly random mixing over time, what are the chances that a glass of water contains at least one molecule that was peed by Jesus or Buddha? Does this make it holy water? And how good is the random mixing assumption? What are the chances the glass of water contains at least one molecule peed by Shakespeare, or by your favorite actress?)

Why are farts funny? Is there an evolutionary advantage to finding flatulence amusing? Or, conversely, did farts evolve because they were funny? Were frequent farters considered more entertaining or easier to get along with, resulting in greater reproductive success? (It does seem an unlikely strategy for finding mates.) Do farts smell so that deaf people can enjoy them too?

Kurt Vonnegut's novel Galapagos involved the devolution of humans into unintelligent, seal-like creatures. The book ended as follows:

"And people still laugh about as much as they ever did, despite their shrunken brains. If a bunch of them are lying around on a beach, and one of them farts, everybody else laughs and laughs, just as people would have done a million years ago."


Wrinkles

Can you tell whether middle-aged or older people are smokers or not by observing how wrinkled their faces are? Could insurance companies use this as a type of facial profiling?


Humor Genome Project

Is the sense of humor inherited, learned, or both? I have no idea what to do with this.


Alien Biology

Is it possible that life was seeded on this planet from outer space?

If scientists were able to recover alien DNA from a meteorite, would it be possible to bring an alien species to life (a la Jurassic Park)?


Zombies

Breathing machines are sometimes used to keep the body alive and the heart pumping after brain death, to preserve organs long enough for organ transplants. Does this blur the line between life and death? Would it be possible to use some kind of artificial brain transplant to turn brain-dead people or animals into biological robots or zombies?

Energy, Ecology

Alternative Energy

This may be the field of the future for engineering, etc., so the sooner you start developing expertise in it, the better. For example, do an experiment compare the relative efficiency of two different ways of harvesting solar energy.

Also see:

The Integral Fast Reactor Project at http://skirsch.com/politics/globalwarming/ifr.htm .

Global Warming

    What plants are most efficient at removing CO2 from the atmosphere? How could you measure this effect? What strategy would be most cost-effective — planting trees, seeding the ocean with iron to promote plankton growth, etc.? What are some possible unintended consequences of trying to "geo-engineer" the planet to produce large-scale modifications of the environment?

    How much global cooling would be achieved if the roof of every office building in the U.S. were painted white, to reflect sunlight toward space? How much would be achieved if the roof of every home were painted white?

    Is it possible to invent an inexpensive paint that turns white or light-colored when the temperature is warm, and dark-colored when the weather is cool (i.e., a thermochromic paint)? (For example, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ORlWgeQ-oc.) If so, this would reflect sunlight toward space in the summer, while also reducing the need for air conditioning. In the winter, this would reduce the need for electric or gas heating.

    Also see:

    "Cosmic Background Radiation" at http://www.halfbakery.com/idea/Cosmic_20Background_20Refrigeration

    The BYU Solar Cooker/Cooler at http://solarcooking.org/plans/funnel.htm.

Health and Medical

Indoor air pollution from oil-filled electric heaters?

    Purchasers of oil-filled electric heaters often complain of a bad smell, particularly at first. (See reviews on Amazon.com, etc.) Some owners don't notice a problem; others say it burns off after running the unit in the garage for a few hours or days at high heat; and others say it never goes away. Some owners complain of headaches when running these heaters, and many return them to the store.

    What causes this smell? Is it due to traces of oil that remain on the outside of the unit? Or is it due to paint or some kind of protective coating that gradually burns off?

    Is it possible to measure the air in the room and determine the source of the smell? Do the chemical emissions violate any air quality standards or recommendations? What is the "half-life" of this pollution, and does it ever completely go away?

    Atmospheric SPF

    People are less likely to get sunburn and skin damage when the sun is low on the horizon. Can the atmospheric protection be quantified in terms of SPF (Sun Protection Factor) as if it were a sunscreen? Can you graph the "atmospheric SPF" for different times of day, different days of the year, different latitudes, and/or different angles of incidence? For example, something like this:

    Atmospheric SPF

    but with more accurate numbers, for a specific date and place?

    The "shadow rule" says to avoid the sun when your shadow is shorter than you are; limit exposure to a half hour when it's the same length; limit exposure to one hour when your shadow is longer. How much ultraviolet radiation would you receive at various times of day if you follow the shadow rule?

    Is there a way to update the shadow rule to make it more accurate? For example, is the intensity of UV radiation inversely proportional to the ratio of the length of your shadow to your height, or is this only true at certain latitudes? (For example, how large could that inverse ratio be if you were at the equator at noon?)

    Can you minimize sun damage by taking a break in the middle of your sun exposure? In other words, is it better to get 30 minutes of sun with an hour break in between, or an hour of sun all at once? A famous doctor wrote in his blog that it doesn't matter; all that matters is the cumulative exposure during one day. Does this sound like the kind of thing experts sometimes make up because it sounds right and seems to make sense, without actually having verified its truth? Can you think of a nondestructive way to test this (without giving someone a sunburn)?

    How much Sun Protection Factor does a cloudy day provide? Do factors like cloudiness or angle of incidence affect UV-A and UV-B rays differently?

    How much Sun Protection Factor does a t-shirt provide?

    What is the half-life of sunscreen (i.e., how long before it becomes half as effective after being applied)?


    One sometimes reads that 20 minutes of sun a day gives you all the Vitamin D you need. But would you get much as much Vitamin D from the sun at 5 PM as you would at noon? Is there a way to measure one's solar Vitamin D intake? Is there a way to optimize your sun exposure, to get the Vitamin D you need while minimizing the possibility of sun damage?


    Do You Need to Drink Water after a Massage to Prevent Achy Muscles?

    It is commonly claimed by massage practitioners that it's important to drink lots of water after a massage to prevent muscle aches due to a buildup of lactic acid. Others say that this is merely an "old hippies' tale." Is there any truth to this claim, and how would you test it?

    Effectiveness of the Combination of Exercise and Meditation for Stress Reduction

    Many studies (such as this one) have shown that exercise and meditation are both helpful for stress reduction. To the best of my knowledge, however, no one has studied the effectiveness of a combination of the two.

    From my own (admittedly biased) experience with my Treadmill Meditation recording (at TreadmillMeditation.com), I think the combination of exercise and meditation can be very powerful. The exercise helps you physically work out your aggression, anxiety or other negative emotions, while the meditation helps you focus your mind on your breath, your body or your walking, instead of replaying unpleasant scenarios in your head.

    You would need to compare four states: exercise alone, meditation alone, exercise plus meditation, and neither (possibly using a placebo, unless placebos are illegal on school campuses). How could you measure your subjects' stress, before and after each of these experiences?

    Why Do People Sleep Better When It's Raining?

    Is it true that people sleep better when it's raining? One report, quoted on the Psychology Today website, claims that sleep diaries show that people actually sleep better on nights when the barometric pressure is higher; i.e., clear nights.

    And yet, in a number of online surveys
    , people generally claim to sleep better on rainy nights. What is the reason for the disconnect?

    One possibility is that some older people might have achy joints when the weather is wet and the barometric pressure is low. How does this phenomenon work?

    Following are some suggested reasons why people might sleep better when it's rainy. How can you isolate these possible causes and find out which is the primary cause (if indeed the phenomenon is real)?

    1. The sound of the rain is soothing or masks other sounds that might disrupt sleep

    2. The high humidity is somehow comforting like a heavy blanket

    3. Something relating to the low barometric pressure (for people who don't have achy joints)

    4. The cloudy weather means less light to keep us awake

    5. The negative ionization associated with rainfall somehow induces sleep (however, note that ionized air, or ozone, is also an air pollutant and health hazard)

    6. The muted sounds and high humidity are comforting because they remind us of being in the womb

    7. There's nothing else to do when it's raining, so we associate rain with taking a nap.

    Medical Image Recognition

    People often don't know whether a particular mole or skin discoloration should be regarded as "suspicious." There might be a use for automatic classification of such discolorations as to whether they might be benign, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or melanoma. Computerized image processing can be used for segmentation of such images; for example, see http://www.cs.wright.edu/people/faculty/agoshtas/paper_fig.html . It may also be possible to recognize suspicious patterns and identify which ones should be investigated more closely. A computer application could also match up skin photos taken over a period of time and identify changes.

    Another medical application of image recognition involves automatic "Gleason grading" to determine the aggressiveness of prostate cancer cells. Currently, Gleason grading is a difficult process in which highly trained professionals study the cell images and decide how differentiated or disorganized the images look. Often different doctors disagree on the results. This may be a difficult process to automate and verify.

    An abstract of one article on automatic Gleason grading is at http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/Xplore/login.jsp?url=http%3A%2F%2Fieeexplore.ieee.org%2Fiel5%2F42%2F4336167%2F04336180.pdf&authDecision=-203

    Some illustrations of different Gleason grades:
    http://www.drugdevelopment-technology.com/projects/drug_abiateronecance/images/1-gleason-grade.jpg
    http://www.webpathology.com/case.asp?case=20


    Obesity and High-Fructose Corn Syrup

    Over the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States, especially in the southern states, as seen in this animated map. What is the main cause of this increase?

    The past 20 or 30 years has also seen a large increase in the U.S. consumption of sugar and sweeteners, and an even larger increase in the use of high-fructose corn syrup, particularly in soft drinks. There is a correlation between the increase in the use of high-fructose corn syrup and the increase in obesity, but are these two factors causally linked? In particular, has soft drink consumption caused this increase in obesity? Is high-fructose corn syrup more likely to cause weight gain than an equivalent amount of sugar? I'm not sure what kind of experiment could you do to confirm a causal relationship...


    What is an itch?

    What is an itch? Is it something that happens in the skin (in the nerves) or in the brain? Is the sensation of itching similar to that of pain, and is it transmitted by the same nerves that sense pain? Are all itches the same, or do they have different mechanisms?

    Sometimes a single spot on your skin can start itching furiously for no apparent reason; then a single scratch can silence it. How does that work? It's almost as if a nerve cell started spontaneously oscillating, and the scratching broke up the oscillation. Or does the mechanism have more to do with the brain than the nerves? What kind of research has been done in this area? Is there a way to measure the electrical responses of nerves in the skin? (Yes, I think there is...)

    Sometimes hearing loss can cause tinnitus (ringing of the ears), which may actually happen in the brain. In the absence of nerve signals corresponding to audio input at certain frequencies, the brain starts hearing tones or noises that aren't there. A related concept is the "phantom limb" phenomenon, in which people who have lost an arm or leg can nevertheless feel pain or other sensations from the missing limb. Can something similar be happening for certain types of itches? Is it possible that the action of scratching sends a signal to the brain, and the real physical sensation overrides the imaginary pain (itch)?

    Why can itching be caused by medical conditions as varied as liver disease, allergic response, a buildup of dead skin cells, drug abuse, stress, pregnancy, shingles, leukemia, kidney disease, hypothyroidism, iron deficiency, and many others? Do these all have something in common, or does the itch mechanism fall into a few common categories?


    Why Do People Weigh Less in the Morning?

    Is it true that people tend to weigh less in the morning, and if so, why? Is it because they exhale water vapor during the night, or because of metabolic activity during the night, or are these two aspects of the same thing, or is it some other reason or combination of reasons? How could you test your hypothesis?

    Does this phenomenon imply that people with insomnia tend to weigh more, and if so, is there any way to make use of this for weight loss? Or is the weight loss after sleeping just "water weight"?

     

Physics

Does Warmer Water Freeze Faster Than Colder Water?

In 1969, a 13-year-old student in Tanzania discovered that, under certain circumstances, warmer water can freeze faster than colder water. He was ridiculed by his teacher and fellow students, but later he mentioned his experiment to Professor Denis Osborne, who conducted his own experiments. Eventually they collaborated to publish a paper on the topic.

This phenomenon is now called the "Mpemba effect", after the name of the student who discovered it. Scientists still don't fully understand why the effect happens, and under what circumstances. A full understanding of the phenomenon may require controlling for a number of variables, such as evaporation, convection, frost, supercooling, dissolved minerals and gases, and thermal conductivity.

Read more about the Mpemba effect:

http://skullsinthestars.com/2011/05/31/mpembas-baffling-discovery-can-hot-water-freeze-before-cold-1969/

https://medium.com/editors-picks/d8a2f611e853

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mpemba_effect


"I Loosened It"

Most of us have experienced the phenomenon where one person tries unsuccessfully to open a jar or bottle, then hands it to another person who succeeds, after which the first person says, "I loosened it." Sometimes one person experiences this phenomenon alone - the first attempt doesn't seem to do anything, but the second attempt, with no apparent additional force, is successful.

Is there a way to measure and consistently replicate this phenomenon, perhaps using stepper motors and strain gauges or something like that? Is the phenomenon real, and if so, what are some possible explanations?

 

Radio-Controlled Flying Disc/Saucer

There are a number of powered, radio-controlled flying saucer toys. Would it be possible to make a passive one that controls its tilt by, for example, adjusting its weight distribution? Using an accelerometer, GPS, and/or temperature sensor, it could seek updrafts or attempt to reach a particular target, perhaps controlled by an iPhone or similar device. The physics would be pretty interesting...

 

The Feynman Reverse Sprinkler Problem

What happens if a lawn sprinkler is submerged and water is sucked out of it instead of being forced into it — will it spin forwards, backwards, or not at all? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feynman_sprinkler.

Politically Incorrect Science Fair Projects

    • Attempt to scientifically prove and/or disprove the existence of God and/or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    • Do anything involving sperm, urine, mucus, menstrual blood, teen pregnancy, etc.

    • Study the hypothesis that students in wealthy school districts get a far better education than students in poor districts. If this turns out to be true, why? What are the correlations between household income, school spending, class size, and test scores from one district to the next? To what extent do schools in poor districts serve as prison prep schools? (See Letter to the Superintendent of Schools.)

    • How has the "No Child Left Behind" act helped or hurt education in the U.S.? What impact has it had on student interest and curiosity? (See No Child Left Unbored.)

    • What is that stuff they serve in the cafeteria, and is it remotely healthy?

Psychology

Why Are Yawns Contagious?

See the short story, Dr. Yawn, for ideas.

Positive Psychology

Some of the research in the field of positive psychology is more rigorous than others. Can you come up with an interesting experiment in this area? For example, have a number of people try one of the exercises over a period of time, and see whether this results in significant improvements. You may want to first read some of the existing research and see if you can improve on it.

Political Science / Mass Psychology

Why are people so willing to obey authority figures who tell them to do things that conflict with their conscience? How could something like Abu Ghraib happen, and why are people so eager to forget about it afterwards? See the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Milgram Experiment, etc.

In what ways have the ideas of Orwell's 1984 (newspeak, doublethink, "Big Brother," thoughtcrime, the Ministry of Truth, the perpetual war, the Thought Police, the memory hole, etc.) come true? What roles have the government, the news media and others played in this?

Follow your curiosity. Select one topic that seems intriguing and see if you can develop a scientifically testable hypothesis.

If you do something along these lines, expect it to go down on your permanent record...


The Evolution of Cooperation

Learn about various species that survive by cooperating with each other. Read the book "The Evolution of Cooperation" and see the lab experiment at http://taumoda.com/web/PD/setup.html.

Can you design a "Prisoner's Dilemma" computer tournament to see which cooperation/competition strategies are most successful? Can you find other examples of this phenomenon in nature?


The Popularity of Science among School Children

Has the popularity of science, science fairs, and math- and science-related professions decreased in the United States over the past 20 or 30 years? I recently heard a radio program in which someone had interviewed students in Bangalore, India about what they wanted to do when they grow up; the answers were things like engineer, engineer, neurosurgeon, airplane pilot, etc. Meanwhile, a certain percentage of the student population in the U.S. aspires simply to be famous: basketball player, rock star, etc.

Is this perception accurate? If so, what has caused this loss of interest in science? If students are turning away from professions such as engineering, what does that imply for the future of the country? How many lawyers, bankers, and reality TV stars does one country really need?

What professions, if any, do students aspire to, and why? What kind of problems need solving in this country, and what would inspire students to study those problems and explore possible solutions?


Other Resources

Physics Question of the Week from the University of Maryland, http://www.physics.umd.edu/lecdem/outreach/QOTW/qotwsubj.htm.

Experiments of the Month
, http://www.millersville.edu/~physics/exp.of.the.month/past.html.

HalfBakery.com.


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