(American Stirling offers students, along with their teachers and parents, some excellent opportunities for science fairs.)

Learning Opportunities:

No. 1 Our best offering for science fairs is our MM-9 Science Fair  package. This package includes a kit Stirling engine for your student to build and a ready to run Stirling engine in case you have difficulty with the kit. This package also includes our Stirling engine book and a spare diaphragm.

No. 2 This package offers both students and parents the added security of being able to complete the science fair using the ready to run engine should the student have difficulty with the kit version. We have provided an excellent set all of online instructions.

Winning opportunities:

It takes more than just excellent technology to win a science fair. It’s been my experience that a student’s haircut and clothes are every bit as important as the display on the table. Here are some tips that will help you win. After your science fair is over please come back to this page and tell others the things you did right and what you thought worked well.  

No. 1 Make sure that you can explain how your Stirling engine works to the most simple-minded judge you might find. Read the information in this web page and be able to explain it clearly. If you have neat technology but you can’t explain it well, you will not win. 

No. 2 Dress neatly and professionally. There is not a judge in the world who will admit that he or she gave you less credit because he didn’t like your nose ring or ear ring (if you are male), but it happens all the time. The world is much more fun if you can understand the biases of the people you have to deal with and use them to your advantage. 

No. 3 Make your written materials impressive. A good way to make a color poster is to print out a color copy of our Stirling cycle illustration, and have it enlarged on a color photocopier at a quick printing company. Winning displays almost always have great color graphics. Make sure you have your printed materials and signs proofread very carefully. Every science fair seems to have one judge who can’t possibly understand Stirling engines, but does know how to spell and will take off points if you have typos. 

No. 4 Cultivate the fine art of sucking up. Most science fairs will have one or two judges from your school. Often these judges are the science teachers or school principals. Long before the science fair, guess who these people are likely to be and get to know them on a first name basis. It’s much easier for judges to give good scores to people they know and like.

Try to develop a reputation for being a good student long before the science fair. People, including your teachers, tend to see what they expect to see. When forced to choose between two equally good displays the judges are more likely to give the winning point to the student whom they expected to do well. If your teachers expect good work from you, they be more likely to treat your display as a winner before they even look at it.

If you win on any prize level, please come back to this page and brag about it!. When you do good work it’s only right for it to be noticed as much as possible.

Reader Comments

Using a copy of Around the World By Stirling Engine, a Model MM-1 and various other resources provided by Mr. Arsdell and this site, I was able to win my local science fair (grades 9-10 category).

I built my own alpha and beta type engines and impressed the judges using all of the techniques described above. I am now off to Newfoundland for the Canada Wide Science Fair. I want to thank Mr. Arsdell, Mr. Hornbaker and all others who answered my posts in the forums.

— Bryan Frobb

How I Helped My Kid Win the Science Fair
(Without Losing My Mind)

My daughter, Katie, is an artist. She loves to draw and, as a dinky fourth grader, won a five county art contest in the San Francisco Bay area. However, being a great artist does not necessarily make one a great scientist (unless your name is Leonardo da Vinci). So guiding Katie to success through that academic minefield called "Science Fair" appeared as daunting as task as climbing Mt. Everest without camping gear. Here's how I guided Katie through her Science Fair with scientific certainty and a Mona Lisa smile.

Why Enter the Science Fair?

Katie wanted to enter her Science Fair to improve life science grade but her path to a better grade was paved with a whole herd of "if's". She could get a better grade if she could find a topic, if she could come up with a problem, if she did the experiments, graphed the results, and presented her info well, and only THEN could she might take a quantum leap in the grade department.

How to Select a Topic

Pick an unusual topic. Anyone can grow green bean plants to rap music and graph how quickly they wither. Do something else that isn't done too often! The organizer of the San Diego County Science Fair told me that in her 30 years with the competition, there had been only 3 Stirling engine projects–and they host up to 1000 projects per year. Stirling engine projects have not been done too often so they are a good choice.

One way to get a science fair judge's attention in a positive way is to create a project that studies a problem which adults face and to present a novel solution. Katie knew about American Stirling Company and had heard me talking about this unusual engine they produce. She also knew that the company that sent us our electricity did not do this with Stirling engines. Katie asked if we could do a project showing how the Stirling engine worked and why it was good alternative. Luckily, American Stirling has a Stirling engine which is small enough to fit on a coffee cup and was thus small enough to test at our home without having to move out all the furniture. Not that the engine could turn on all the lights and run the microwave oven but at least Katie could test what powered the little darling up.

To Build or Not to Build? That is the Question.

The engine that we needed came ready-to-run (the MM-1) or as kit (the MM-5). In addition, there is the MM-9, Science Fair Winner's Kit which has both the ready-to-run MM-1 and the MM-5 kit, all the adhesives, a book on Stirling engines, and a CD of experiments. We could have opted to build this engine from a kit (the MM-5) and while I built models of the Starship Enterprise ten years ago with my son, Ari, I was not in a mood to handle Super Glue at this point of my life, even though Katie would have learned a lot more about how engines work if I had. That, and we wanted to make sure that the engine worked the first time out of the box…so we had someone else build it. Saved a lot of gray hair and glued together fingers as well. You decide which approach is right for you.

Experiments R Us

Being a kid, Katie knew that food gave her the energy to pursue the difficult task of being a seventh grader. Since the Stirling engine will run on any temperature different from the ambient air, she thought she'd test the engine on various types of food to see what made it run the longest amount of time and what made it run the fastest (more rotations per minute).

Being a kid, she picked foods that she liked. She tested the engine on Stouffer's Macaroni and Cheese while it was still frozen and then cooked it according to package direction–and tested it again. Once cooked, the engine ran faster and longer on the cooked mac & cheese rather then on the frozen. It might have run longer but Katie kept sneaking bites from under the engine, effectively causing it to sink further and further into the sticky gooey cheesey mess of a dish. Once the propeller stopped turning, she proceeded to eat every shred of the fuel source. Touchdown, our family's Flame Point Siamese cat, helped clean up the last tidbits of cheese once Katie was done.

Her next scientific victim, er test material, was Trader Joe's Frozen Organic Blueberries. Since she didn't want to accidentally dye the bottom of the engine blue from the berries (granted it is already blue so the goal was not to get it any bluer than it already was), she placed the engine right on the bag of berries. There it happily sat and whirled for two hours and twenty minutes. It probably ran longer than that but by then we had both gotten rather bored and wandered off (like Winnie the Pooh) after our last measurement at 2 hours and 20 minutes. We were, sad to say, somewhere else when the propeller finally stopped spinning. Oh well.

Katie started out as a reluctant scientist but as the days went on, she began to innovate and to seek new foodstuffs to become the stuff of scientific experiments and/or snacks.

Katie and I learned to enjoy the creativity and innovation that all good scientists display: formulating an idea, testing it, and then testing it a different way. As Katie said, it's like looking at a painting from different angles: you learn something new when you study the picture from a different angle. So it is with science.

Katie went on to test Linden Tea (hot), microwaved instant oatmeal, and a bowl of ice. She tested her favorite flavor of ice cream (this also miraculously disappeared immediately after the propeller stopped spinning) against a sorbet, just to see if there was difference. That kid will experiment on anything! She tried testing the hot fudge for the cold ice cream but the test material disappeared before testing was completed. Wonder how that happened? Who knew that science was so edible???

Katie found that the engine ran the fastest on Uncle Lee's Green Tea, made hot in the microwave after 5 minutes on high. Interesting: hot water, cooked the same amount of time in the same type of cup (they were from the same litter) ran just as fast (95 rotations per minute).

How To Count Propeller Rotations Without Going Cross-Eyed

I know you are wondering: how do you count 95 rotations per minute? Well, one of you keeps a watch with a second hand to start and stop timing. The other person stares intently at the propeller and, without looking at the paper under his or her arm, jabs a pen down on the paper for each rotation of the propeller. Let the pen trail in line left to right and then bend the line like a backwards "S" down the page, rather than trying to start at the same place on the left side of the page. You end up with lazy backwards "s"'s all over the page but it is easier to count and you haven't accidentally written on top of a previous line. At the end of the time, you count up how many pen jabby dotty thingies are there are on the paper.

Caution: don't try to save paper and put the dots close together or it's like counting the multitude of freckles on my arm. Let's not go there…

The Cat as Science Monitor

Even the family cat, Touchdown, joined in. His job was to jump up on the table and sit squarely on the data journal so that it would not blow away in the non-existent wind. He did his job very well, I must say, because the book did not blow away even once. Not even a page twitched under his white, furry haunches.

Touchdown also was in charge of verifying that the propeller was actually turning and it wasn't merely a figment of our imaginations. He got close enough to verify this once and did not need to do it ever again (although it probably wouldn't have hurt him).

The Art of Scientific Presentation

Here is where Katie's talent as an artist came in handy. Pay just as much attention to how to present your data as you did collecting them. Judges really do grade the project's artistic presentation. Great scientists have lost competitions because they had sloppy graphics or just slapped data up willy nilly on a display board. Be careful. Katie excelled as an artist so creating a hand drawn, colored title, arranging the poster board on the display panels, and placing data sheets on the display in visually pleasing way came very naturally to her. Anyone, in a few seconds, could understand what she was trying to do just by looking at the proposal and the photos. That was our goal.

Once we had the data, she created hand-drawn line graphs to chart the fastest and the longest running food sources. You might NOT want to do this: while it proves the kid did the work, the judges actually expect nifty, handy-dandy Excel-generated graphs. Indeed, if there are no computer-generated graphs, the judges often overlook the project.

After Katie competed at her school's Science Fair, she went on to compete at the county level in 2004. At this level, Katie had her share of colorful, computer-generated, artsy-craftsy graphs. Katie, being artistic, drew the title and colored in the three-dimensional letters by hand. This made for a very attractive and unusual sign. Her title was: "Ancient Greeks Solve Energy Crisis." The ancient Greeks wrote about thermodynamics and it is this science of the change in heat and cold that creates the power in the Stirling engine. Properly applied this engine, in its bigger brother on steroids form, could provide enough energy to solve the energy crisis. So you see it's not as weird a title as you might think.

Materials & Other Fun Stuff

For her middle school competition, Katie used a white, three-panel display board. After she won at the middle school level, an artist friend suggested that Katie use a black, three-panel display board since all of her graphs on white paper would stand out so much more. Out of the thousand entries at county, only a handful (less than 20) used the black display boards. The rest used white.

In addition, we bought poster board with blue sky and clouds and science fair titles kit. In the kit, you have all the titles for the sections of a science fair project ("Title," "Procedure," "Conclusion," etc.) Each word is in solid black letters on a white background. Each label has adhesive on the back to that it can be easily attached to the board. Katie cut these to fit inside the panels.

For the County competition, she used the craft scissors from our scrapbooking project so that the poster board edges had an unusual edge. In addition, you couldn't tell if the line she cut was straight or not. On top of the poster board, she attached her charts, data, photos, etc. Why? The combination of the black background with the light blue framed within it and the white data sheets on top of that was truly, very visually, striking.

Photos? Yes, very important. Show kidlet actually doing the work. Show kidlet having fun. Show what was going on. In our case, showcase kidlet and cat!

Speak Up!

What we found out is that Katie had less than 15 seconds to get the attention of the judges. When asked about her project, Katie said she was trying to bring attention to a little-known engine which might reduce our dependence on foreign oil. This got the judges' attention. Suggestion: have your little Einstein practice a single catchy sentence: "I'd like to find a test that could detect e-coli-tainted lettuce which might make someone sick or die." Then practice a paragraph or two which detail the project, what your student did and what your student learned. If the kid can't explain what he/she did, the chance for an award rapidly dwindles.

While it is easily possible to baffle the judges, but I don't suggest it. Katie baffled the middle school judges (including her own teacher and the school's science fair coordinator). The scientific adults sent her on to the County competition because they figured Katie knew more than they did. After all, her project wasn't quite as easy to comprehend as the umpteenth zillion edition of growing green bean plants to rap music just to see them wither.

Drum Roll, Please!

At the Greater San Diego County Science Fair, Katie won 4th. Place in Engineering, the second largest category for middle school students. She stood on the stage accepting her award along side kids who may go on to be the doctors, dentists, and engineers of tomorrow. It was great!

This year as an eighth grader in Physical Science, Katie is earning a "A" with no help at all from dear old mom.

Katie gained the confidence to speak to adults about science and engineering–not just about cats, anime (Japanese animation), and art. In fact, she did so well at County that she was recruited by a society of women engineers to join their youth chapter! Katie was told that her talent for art would accelerate her success as an engineer. Katie was surprised and thrilled that they wanted her even though she thought of herself as more a Mary Cassatt than a Marie Curie.

I am so proud of Katie. She is a great kid!!!

Katie learned that science was fun…and edible. What will your kid learn??

— Kathryn Bazan