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Outlining Your Ideas for Your Science Fair Project

Before you can tell them what you're going to tell them, you need to make an outline. When you actually begin to write the paper, your outline keeps you on track, so that you can present your information in the proper sequence. However, before you can outline, you have to look at all your facts and group all related information together.

Making order from chaos: Sorting your notes

If you took notes on index cards, you need to separate them by subject.

You may want to spread them out on the floor or on a big table. Then, you can look through the cards to see which facts belong together. You can start this process by collecting the facts that define what your topic is about. Then, compile the data that describe the qualities or composition of the substance that you're discussing. Last, gather together all the facts that explain how the item is used.

For example, for a project on the effects of watering plants with gray (recycled) water, you can have these facts (courtesy of Kim D. Coder, Extension Forester, "Using Gray Water on the Landscape", University of Georgia, College of Agriculture and Environmental Studies.

  • Gray water is water that can be used twice.
  • Gray water includes the discharge from kitchen sinks, dishwashers, bathtubs, showers, lavatories, and the household laundry.
  • Using gray water can almost double water-use efficiency and provide a water source for landscape irrigation.
  • Gray water doesn't include water from garbage disposals, toilets, or diaper water.
  • Gray water contains high levels of grease.
  • Gray water is warmer, by 10 to 15 degrees, than normal wastewater.
  • Gray water contains a large amount of fibers and particles. Filters must remove these materials before gray water enters an irrigation system.
  • Storing gray water is against health codes in many counties. Check with your local health department for additional information about using gray water at your address.
  • Misused gray water can spread typhoid fever, dysentery, hepatitis, and other bacterial and viral problems.
  • Disinfection is critical for gray water held more than three hours. Health hazards — especially with eye contact — are present in dissolved and suspended organic material and detergents.

When you sort and group the facts by topic, you'll find them in this sequence:

  • Definition of gray water

• Gray water is water that can be used twice.

• Gray water includes the discharge from kitchen sinks, dishwashers, bathtubs, showers, lavatories, and the household laundry.

• Gray water doesn't include water from garbage disposals, toilets, or diaper water.

  • Characteristics of gray water

• Gray water contains a large amount of fibers and particles. Filters must remove these materials before gray water enters an irrigation system.

• Gray water contains high levels of grease.

• Gray water is warmer, by 10 to 15 degrees, than normal wastewater.

  • Warnings on the use of gray water

• Storing gray water is against health codes in many counties. Check with your local health department for additional information about using gray water at your address.

• Misused gray water can spread typhoid fever, dysentery, hepatitis, and other bacterial and viral problems.

• Disinfection is critical for gray water held more than three hours. Health hazards — especially with eye contact — are present in dissolved and suspended organic material and detergents.

  • Using gray water can almost double water-use efficiency and provide a water source for landscape irrigation.

Notice that the list has an orphan, the last fact about the advantages of using gray water.

If you can't find logical homes for a few facts, don't try to force them into a particular topic. But don't get rid of them either. When you begin your experiment, you may have an "Aha!" moment, when you remember that lonely piece of information. Also, if you decide to do another project on the same topic, these facts can be the beginning of next year's research paper.

Come to think of it, that fact about the advantages of using gray water makes a great opening sentence for a research paper!

Using the outline format

After you group and sort your information, those piles of cards on the floor or facts on the screen begin to make more sense. However, by using an outline, you need to arrange the facts in each group into a logical sequence. These sequenced facts become the basis of your first draft.

Subdividing topics correctly

Look at each group of facts and find the main theme or heading. Then, find the subtopics that go under the main headings. If an item is subdivided, it must contain at least two elements. Otherwise, the information should've been included in the division above.

For example, it would be incorrect to say:

C. Health hazards

1. Eye infection

Instead, you may say "Health hazards, including eye infection."

If you record your facts using a word processor, check out the automatic outlining feature. For example, Microsoft Word has a Bullets and Numbering item in the Format menu that allows you to select an outlining format. From that point, you can indent to get the outline level that you want.

If you're not well acquainted with using outline form, take a look at the gray water facts (from the previous section) arranged in outline form:

I. Definition

A. Reusable water

B. Recycled from "clean" water use

C. Doesn't include wastewater

II. Characteristics

A. Grease content

B. Fiber and particle content

C. Temperature

III. Cautions

A. Storage regulations

B. Disinfecting requirements

C. Health hazards

Using sentences or fragments

When you create an outline, you can use either complete sentences or sentence fragments for the individual entries. But be consistent — pick one method and stick with it.

For a sentence outline, make each entry a complete sentence, for example, "Photosynthesis is the process of synthesizing sunlight." But, for a topic outline, make each entry a phrase with no punctuation at the end; for example, "Photosynthesis — light transformation".

Coping with not enough or too much information

You probably know how long your paper needs to be, so check your outline to see if you have enough information. If not, back to the library (or the Internet) you go! But now you know exactly what you need to get.

On the other hand, if your outline has too many points to cover in the number of pages you're going to write, you have to shorten the outline.

You can do shorten your outline in two ways:

  • Cut out some points, especially if they're not crucial to your paper.
  • Reduce the number of facts that you discuss under each point.

If you doubt whether your outline is solid (or just need some reassurance), ask your teacher to take a look at it. And remember to always check that everything in your outline is spelled correctly.

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