Posters — the good and the bad
It’s an exciting moment when you first collect data from an experiment. It’s even more exciting when you tell everyone else what you learned. Scientists often gather at meetings — from student science fairs to adult conferences — to present their findings and to get new ideas. Many times, the presenters initially display their findings on a poster.
So I’m taking my cookie science data and sharing what I learned on a poster. In fact, I’m putting it on two posters. Each will resemble posters you might see at a local science fair. One shows how to present data well. The other deliberately makes some mistakes in presenting those data effectively.
If you make too many mistakes on your poster, it could mean that really cool scientific results will be misunderstood or overlooked.
Keep in mind, a good science poster doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. Both of my posters had budgets of $10. What makes a good poster stand out is one having what I call the three C’s.
— Continuity: The poster should present a continuous story of your experiment. Your poster should tell a story that begins with why you studied the problem that you did and ends with what you conclude from your results. Along the way, it should explain briefly how you tested your hypothesis, what data you gleaned along the way, how confident you are that your data show something meaningful and why the findings may be important to others.
— Clarity: When you share your research with others, you want to make sure that what you did is clear. People who read your poster should be able to tell what you did, how you did it and why. They should also be able to see what your results were and what you concluded from them. This means your findings should be easy to read and understand. Poster text should be large. The data should be graphed or charted. And it should be easy to tell apart your hypothesis and conclusions.
— Consistency: The style of a poster should be consistent to help the poster look clear. Graphs that measure similar things should look similar. You also may want to stick to just one or two styles of letters, to ease readability.
The bad poster
Below is a picture of my not-so-great poster. Can you spot 10 things that need fixing? I’ve circled them for you on the next slide.
This poster is sloppy and difficult to read. Can you spot 10 mistakes?
Here are 10 mistakes that are easy to spot. But there are many more!
What’s wrong with this poster?
— It looks sloppy. A friend and I put it together in about 20 minutes. The graphs and text aren’t straight and the paper is not cut out and attached neatly.
— What hypothesis am I testing? Every good scientific experiment has a hypothesis — an explanation or idea that is being tested. But my poster never explained what my hypothesis was.
— “Science” is misspelled. If you want to make a good impression, check your spelling.
— Christmas lights are fun, but if you’re project isn’t about Christmas lights, you probably want to leave them off. You want people to look at your results. Not at Christmas lights, glitter or other types of distracting bling.
— Other than the Christmas lights and the letters, this poster isn’t very colorful. The graphs aren’t easy to see, and everything seems to blend into the white background.
— What do these graphs show? Most aren’t labeled.
— The graphs are not consistent. Some are dots, other use bars. Some data are presented sideways and others vertically. Some details are even squished far down to the bottom of the page. This makes it hard to tell what they show and what order to read them in.
— Are the differences I saw statistically significant? Only those that are may be worth paying much attention to. But here, the graphs don’t include that information.
— The text in the introduction and conclusion sections is very small. Most people aren’t going to come up and lean right in to your poster. Large text will help readers grasp your work quickly.
— And whose project was this, anyway? My name isn’t even on it!
Overall, this poster lacks all three C’s. There is no continuity. What order did I do things in? Why did I do them? The poster also has no clarity. The text is small and hard to see, and the graphs lack labels. Finally, there’s no consistency. The graphs are each presented differently, making it hard to tell what I found in my experiments.
How can I do better? I don’t need to spend more money. All I really need to do is spend more time.
The good poster
This poster isn’t perfect. But it is neat and you can easily see what I did in my cookie project.
This poster actually cost less than the bad one, but it took about 10 times as long to assemble. All I needed was paper, color printing, some lettering and some construction paper. I cut things out carefully; made sure all edges were straight and generally put together a poster that was neat and easy to read. That takes time.
As you click through the slideshow, you can see that this poster has the three C’s. It’s got continuity. I start at the top left showing why people might need a cookie with no gluten — one of the proteins found in wheat. From there the reader can scan down to see how I tackled the experiments. My hypotheses and findings are in the center, where they can get the most attention. Finally, the bottom right of the poster has my conclusion highlighted in red.
The poster also has clarity. At the top left, I have the goal of my project. Above each set of experiments I have the hypothesis that they were testing. At the bottom right I have a summary of my findings and a conclusion. For each graph, I have included markings to show whether or not a result was statistically significant — meaning unlikely to simply be due to chance. Anyone who reads the poster will be able to tell what I learned in each experiment. The text is large, so people will not have to squint to read it.
This is my methods section, so readers know how I conducted my experiments.