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It’s My Hamster – When Science Fair Meets Ethics by Lauren Hudson

As a teacher, I always encourage my students to select Science Fair topics that genuinely interest them rather than the typical projects from library books and websites. Every year, students want to test how products affect them or how their pet is influenced by different conditions. I think that this is only natural; we want to know more about what is familiar to us. However, there are ethical issues to consider. In the “real world”, scientists are expected to conduct their work ethically, so must we encourage our young scientists to contemplate the impact of their experiments. Policies set in place by Youth Science Canada not only govern the projects that may enter the Canada Wide Science Fair but also all regional Science Fair chapters, including the Vancouver Island Regional Science Fair. Become familiar with the ethics documents at the following website to avoid having disappointed students:

Youth Science Canada Ethics Guidelines (old) or mySTEM Ethics page

Use the following points as a rough guide:

  • An adult supervisor should always be aware of and is therefore responsible for the ethical issues involved in a project
  • Projects on lower orders of life, including bacteria, protozoa, fungi, plants and invertebrates, are allowed when conducted without causing excess harm
  • Projects on higher orders of life, including vertebrates or invertebrates with complex nervous systems, are only allowed in select cases
  • Any projects involving human subjects must be conducted with the participants’ written consent, the written consent of the parent/guardian of participants under the age of 19, and the subjects’ privacy must be respected
  • Projects consisting of surveys of attitudes and beliefs, skill tests or observation of behaviour are allowed, but sensitivity to the dignity of and respect for the individuals must be attended to
  • All projects involving exercise, ingestion of food or drink or invasive procedures are considered to be of high riskSo bring out the surveys, slap on the running shoes and tell me which carrot tastes better…just don’t forget to consider the ethical and safety aspects of these projects!

Go to the Useful Links/Ethics page for the following forms:
(1) Consent Form for human participants – Options: (1) Editable form; (2) Blank printable form; (3) Filled-in example
(2) Request for Ethics Ruling form

STEM Projects and COVID-19

We enter the current STEM fair season during the highest infection rates recorded in Canada. All STEM fair projects must adhere to the safety standards in place in their province and municipality to support the health and safety of all participants, including the youth carrying out the project. All local COVID-19 protocols must be followed in detail. Projects that fail to observe COVID-19 restrictions in place at the time they are carried out are ineligible to participate in STEM fairs. It is the responsibility of the region to determine whether this is the case.

All students working on STEM fair projects are encouraged to find alternatives to using human participants where possible.

National Ethics & Safety Committee
Youth Science Canada

Requirements for the Project Display Safety Check

At the start of the Science Fair, immediately after you have set up your project display, a safety check will take place. For your safety and the safety of others attending the fair, all projects must comply with the VIRSF safety requirements. Failure to follow these rules and requirements may result in disqualification at the fair.

The following items are NOT permitted and shall be removed from your display. Take pictures and bring photos of your project or experiment instead!

Fire Hazards

  • Flames, candle, torch, or any heating device such as a hot plate
  • Excessive packing material under the table

Electrical hazards

  • Inappropriately grounded electrical plugs or sockets.
  • Modifications of CSA approved electrical equipment
  • Wet cell batteries such as lead acid
  • Dry cell batteries such as alkaline, NiMH, or Lithium ion.

Electronic equipment

    created by participants are only permitted if they have:

  • As low a voltage and electric current as possible
  • A non-combustible enclosure
  • An insulating grommet at the point where the electrical service enters the enclosure
  • All exposed terminals must be covered
  • Pilot light to indicate when device is powered


  • Biological toxins
  • Cell or tissue samples (including blood and blood products, except on sealed microscope slides)
  • Plants or plant tissue
  • Soil containing organic material
  • Cultures – petri dishes containing media, ziplocs with spores, etc.

Images of Humans

  • Sensational or offensive images of humans on project display

Animals and Animal Parts

  • NOT PERMITTED: Live animals or micro-organisms
  • PERMITTED: Items naturally shed by an animal or parts properly prepared and preserved (e.g. quills, shed snake skin, feathers, tanned pelts and hides, antlers, hair samples, skeletons or skeletal parts)

Firearms, Hazardous Materials, and Equipment

  • Firearms, ammunition, dangerous goods, or explosives
  • Images of humans or animals injured by firearms or explosives
  • Functional X-ray and radiation-producing equipment

Structural and Mechanical Safety

  • Any structurally unsound backboard or display
  • Sharp edges such as the corners of prisms, mirrors, glass, or metal plates that are not in a case
  • Dangerous exposed moving parts such as belts, gears, pulleys, and blades
  • Motors that do not contain safety shut-offs
  • Pressurized vessels or compressed gas cylinders
  • Moving exhibits (such as robots) that are using more than their allocated space

Chemical Safety

  • Flammable, toxic or dangerous chemicals
  • Prescription drugs or over the counter medications
  • More than 1 L of liquid being displayed
  • Radioactive sources and materials (e.g. smoke detector sources)
  • Any chemicals on display other than water or table salt are not recommended. Water, salt, and molasses can be used to simulate other materials. Write “simulated X” on the material. You may use food colouring and water to simulate chemicals if necessary. All displayed liquids must be sealed.