Rules Regarding Special Types of Projects

There are several types of projects for which special regulations apply. These regulations may apply to the work itself, to the exhibit used at the fair, or to both. In all cases, the primary reason for these rules lies in safety, both for the students and for any subjects of their experiments, and for the viewing public. There are often hazards of a hidden nature in scientific work which may not be obvious to the uninitiated student or his/her teacher. These rules are an attempt to educate everybody as to what those hazards are, and to define the circumstances under which certain types of work may be performed and reported. They draw upon the rules for the ISEF competition, but also expanding upon them to provide additional explanation. We do not intend any conflict between what is presented here and the ISEF rules. If any such conflict is perceived, then you may assume that the ISEF rules apply.

In all cases where certification of projects is required, the NJRSF makes the additional requirement that the certification paperwork be submitted by Dec. 1 of the year preceding the fair, or before the work is begun, whichever is earlier. The extra deadline of Dec. 1 is set to allow us time for a thorough review of work that falls into these categories, before the students begin any work. Again, our concern here is primarily that of safety.

RULE CHANGE FOR 2011: Effective for 2011, and for subsequent years, all projects will be required to submit ISEF certification forms to the NJRSF SRC electronically, via the website. This means that in addition to the above deadline for projects that require special certification under ISEF rules, all students must submit at least the ISEF forms 1, 1A, and 1B before the entry deadline, or before the work is begun, whichever is first. If you are doing summer work, this means you must submit the forms and have SRC approval before the summer.

The effect of this change is that we will continue to allow projects outside the special categories to be submitted without requiring Dec. 1 certification, while at the same time giving us the opportunity to review the plan for safety and adherence to important guidelines. The ISEF rules require that these forms be executed prior to the work, so the only new requirement here is that they be submitted to our SRC before you begin your work.

Note, though, that all forms are being handled electronically for 2011, and you must follow instructions on your Entry Status screen (see student dropdown), which details all the steps in the registration procedure, including the preparation and submission of the proper forms.

The remainder of this article is organized as follows:
  1. Certification of Projects (rules regarding what work can be done)
    1. Vertebrate Animals
    2. Human Subjects
    3. Recombinant DNA
    4. Microbial Cultures and other Pathogenic Agents
    5. Tissue Samples
    6. Controlled Substances
  2. Supervision of Hazardous Projects There is a class of projects which do not require advance SRC approval, but do require qualified supervision which must be documented.
    1. Hazardous Chemicals
    2. Hazardous Equipment
    3. Radiation and Radioactive substances
    4. Firearms
  3. Display Regulations (rules regarding what can be displayed and when)
    1. Lasers
    2. Hazardous Equipment
    3. Microbes
    4. Chemicals
    5. Plant or Animal specimens

Certification of Projects

The certification of projects is a complicated subject for both students and teachers. The ISEF rulebook is always the final authority on these rules-but our advice is quite simple. If you have any doubt whether the rules affect you, then you should contact our Scientific Review Committee for clarification.

Vertebrate Animals

The use of vertebrate animals in student projects is strictly regulated. Students are required to demonstrate that the use of vertebrates is necessary; that is, that the desired information cannot be gained by other means. Often similar work can be done with lower life forms without losing the essentials of an idea-and in those cases the students are expected to do just that. Second, students are required to demonstrate a knowledge of proper care procedures for any species used in their research. This entails library research and submission of an appropriate bibliography on the subject, along with detailed procedures for care of the animals. In most cases, appropriate care of animals is impossible in a school setting, due to weekend and vacation access schedules, and students usually find that it is necessary to work that have approved laboratories with animal-care facilities in order to satisfy this requirement. Finally, the procedures involving the animals must be described in detail and justified on the basis of necessity, animal comfort, and risk. Students are required to stop an experiment at the first sign of stress in an animal. If internal medication is involved, then the dosages must be described and justified. All of these are discussed in the ISEF rulebook.

In order to maintain better control of such projects, we insist on prior approval by the NJRSF SRC (before the experimental work is begun) for any project that involves vertebrate animals and anything other than observation. Any direct interaction or invasive projects must be pre-approved by our SRC, not by a local body.

In general, students are advised that undertaking a study of vertebrate animals involves assumption of a considerably greater responsibility than most other types of projects. The certification procedure is intended to identify those responsibilities explicitly. If the student does not wish to assume these responsibilities, then he or she should plan on doing a different project.

Finally, a word of caution: If you perform a study of any sort involving a pet, then the care of that pet must satisfy the rules for the care of research animals. Since the circumstances under which most pets are kept are incompatible with the strict rules of research animal care, such a project is almost always unsuitable for entry in the fair.

Human Subjects

The ISEF rulebook covers the subject of projects involving human subjects with great care. Once again, any project involves humans places far greater responsibilities on the researcher than projects which deal only with inanimate objects. This may seem an obvious statement. Certainly if a student is experimenting with medication or treatment of any sort, is quite obvious that controls have to be implemented. What is not so obvious is that many kinds of work that seem innocuous at first glance might in fact have hidden risks to the subjects. For this reason, the issue of human subjects includes several categories of projects that often cause confusion among students and teachers alike.

The primary problem here is that students often don't interpret a project as involving human subjects when it in fact does. For example, any questionnaire project, of necessity, involves human subjects; and there can be risks in such a project (usually of a psychological nature). Another example involves tasting studies where common foods are used. This might sound innocuous, but what about checking for allergic reactions among the subjects? Many common foods can be deadly to some individuals, including peanuts, strawberries, and milk, among others. The point is that things are always complicated when human subjects are involved, and the responsibility for safety and comfort of the subjects rests squarely with the researcher. For this reason, any project that involves humans in any fashion whatever must be screened in advance by the Scientific Review Committee. This includes a project where a researcher experiments on his or her own body. There are simply no exceptions.

Recombinant DNA

The primary reason for concern in this case is the safety of the researchers. There are very few, if any, instances where such work can be performed outside an approved laboratory, under the supervision of trained professionals. Again, see the corresponding section of the ISEF rulebook for the detailed rules and forms.

One concern quite specific to this area is in the use of ethidium bromide. This material is used for staining gels in the fingerprinting of DNA fragments, and it is a known carcinogen. Despite the fact that the material is used quite routinely in professional laboratories, under strict safeguards, the ISEF SRC has ruled that students may never handle a gel stained with it. If your work calls for such gel work, the gels must be prepared, handled, and analyzed by other workers. At the 1996 ISEF, one of our students was very nearly disqualified over this issue. They agreed to allow her to exhibit since it was a new rule for that year. However, the SRC made a very public statement that no more exceptions would be granted, for any reason. If a student handles ethidium bromide in performing any work associated with a science project, he or she is ineligible for ISEF, regardless of what safeguards, supervision, and procedures were in place.

Microbe Cultures and Pathogenic Agents

The ISEF rulebook discusses pathogenic agents. What students and teachers often fail to realize, though, is that many microbial cultures must regarded as pathogenic, even if they result from organisms acquired from sources which we encounter every day of our lives. The reason for this is that an organism which presents no human health problems when it is present in dilute form may take on significant hazards when it is cultured in a growing medium and subsequently handled.

In general, there is only one kind of microbial culture which is permissible for a student to handle without special supervision. This is a culture of a completely known strain, that is obtained from a certified supply house, such as Carolina Biological Supply, and that is certified to be nonpathogenic. In order to fit this definition, the strain must be completely identified, and the certification from the supply house must be available in its original form. Once again, we have had a student nearly disqualified over this sort of infraction-which the ISEF SRC has begun to enforce only in the last couple of years, though it has been in place for quite a while.

The culturing of bacteria obtained from any wild source (such as your skin or teeth, a pond, the rocks in your backyard, or meat from the grocery store) is strictly forbidden, unless it is performed under professional guidance, with the full safeguards used for handling pathogens. In essence, any microbial preparation that is not known to be nonpathogenic, must be assumed to be pathogenic.

And there is a new rule for 2009 (and afterward), which prohibits attempts to reculture organisms selected from a previous culture with the goal of reinforcing mutations that have occurred. For example, any attempt to produce antibiotic resistant bacteria in such a manner is now prohibited, unless the cultures are treated as pathogenic and handled using procedures and facilities of at least BioSafety 2 or higher. Such work can no longer be performed in most high school labs, even when the starting bacteria are a known, nonpathogenic strain.

Human and Animal Tissue Samples

The ISEF rules require that any project using human or animal tissue samples be certified, even if the students are not involved in acquiring the samples. Once again, there are hidden issues here. For example, blood is considered a tissue, so any work involving blood samples must be certified. Moreover, any human tissue, including especially blood, must be certified HIV-free or a student is not allowed to handle it under any circumstances.

In this case, there are some specific exceptions listed in the ISEF rules. These include

plant tissue,
established cell and tissue cultures, such as those available from Carolina Supply or The American Type Culture Collection,
meat or meat by-products obtained from food stores, restaurants, or packing houses, and
Note, though, that if you do anything to culture bacteria on such materials you may have to go through a certification procedure for that (see above).

Controlled Substances

Any work involving substances (drugs, firearms, tobacco, or other special chemicals) which are subject to government regulation must adhere to all relevant local, state, and federal laws. The work should be certified in advance by submission of the required forms to the SRC. The supervision of a Qualified Scientist is pretty much always required.


Projects in these categories do not require certification unless they include elements of the categories listed in the previous section. However, they are deemed to present sufficient hazards to the researcher that there is a requirement for adequate supervision. Accordingly, in these cases, the student is required to file Form 3, the Designated Supervisor Form. Note that the form must be executed and signed before your work is begun. The date is important. A violation of this detail will disqualify you for the ISEF awards at the NJRSF. You must present the required form when you come in to set up your project on the first day of the fair.

Hazardous Chemicals

There is sometimes confusion over what a hazardous chemical is. There are the obvious things, such as pesticides or carcinogens, and other toxic or biologically active materials. However, there are also significant dangers associated with the use of strong acids or bases, and with any work involving heavy metals (lead, bismuth, antimony, and mercury, to name a few), which are highly poisonous to humans.

Hazardous Equipment There are number of types of apparatus that must be regarded as sufficiently hazardous to require supervision. These include such things as high voltage apparatus, radio frequency generators, high temperature apparatus, and lasers.

Radiation and Radioactive Materials

In this category, in addition to the obvious things like radioactive isotopes, we have to include any work with x-rays, electron microscopes, ultraviolet radiation (black lights), or anything involving high voltage acceleration of charged particles (such as a plasma generator). The damage that such things can cause is insidious in that it is unnoticeable as it happens, even if significant harm is done. Accordingly, strict safety precautions are called for.


Any use of firearms in a project presents the obvious hazards, and requires supervision by an adult trained in the handling of such weapons.


The ISEF Display Regulations are quite explicit about what may and may not be displayed. Below we present some thoughts and ideas with regard to a few of the items mentioned.


Lasers are used in projects of many sorts, and we get frequent requests to allow displays incorporating them. Frequently, we have to deny these requests. It is very difficult to design an exhibit including an operating laser which does not pose hazards for the viewers under some circumstances. Class III and IV lasers are never allowed to operate in the exhibit, by ISEF rules. If you must use a laser, not only should you be very careful of your own safety, especially regarding possible damage to your eyes, but you would be well advised to design your project to avoid the necessity of using it in your exhibit. For example, you might use video tapes or photographs to show the apparatus in operation.

Hazardous Apparatus

Other kinds of apparatus can also present a significant hazard. High voltage equipment must be completely shielded from any accidental touching of exposed wiring, if it is allowed to operate at all. Usually such operation is allowed only during judging periods, so once again it is useful if the student makes some allowance for describing or portraying the operation of the project by some other means. There are very good reasons why apparatus intended for lab use, where it may be completely safe, becomes unsafe when operated in a public environment. For example, an rf generator which poses no threat to a normal person, might interfere with operation of a pacemaker in a bystander, with disastrous results. When large crowds of people are present, such unlikely eventualities have to be taken into account in a prudent manner-and that frequently precludes operation of project apparatus.


Display of microbial cultures of any type is strictly prohibited. If you wish to display such things, you must use photographs.


Display of any chemicals as such is prohibited, as is the presence of chemical containers, even if they are filled with water. The reason for this has to do with the need to deal with the materials in the event of an emergency such as a fire, and the possible hazard they could present to emergency personnel and other bystanders. Chemical containers filled with water could cause unnecessary time-consuming precautions to be taken by emergency personnel, distracting them from other duties. Therefore, such materials are not allowed.

Plant and Animal Tissue

No plant or animal tissue, alive or preserved, may be displayed. This is a blanket rule. A project that involves bean plants or mice or insects must use photographs to display the materials in question.