Science fair advice from a judge’s perspective

This Wednesday, I was a judge for the San Francisco Bay Area Science Fair. Seventh through twelfth grade students submitted original research projects in field including physical science, biological science, environmental science and behavioral science.

I didn’t know what to expect when I showed up in the morning to get my judging assignment. I had no idea what the quality of the projects would be like or how far from my field of expertise I would be assigned. I was just excited to be around young people who weren’t as frustrated with science as the grad students and post-docs that I interact with every day.

As it turned out, though, I didn’t get to interact with the students at all! I was so disappointed. I was to select the recipient of a special award in materials science while all of the students were gone for the morning. This plan minimized the possibility that I would be charmed into giving the award for a less worthy project. But it also meant that I didn’t get the chance to dispence my wisdom to any aspiring scientists, so I will offer it up in this space.

Advice to entrants in high school science fairs, from a judge:

1. Simpler is better! By far my favorite project at the science fair had to do with stress and strain within LEGO block walls. It was elegant and connected to concepts within physics and engineering. Bonus lesson: Pick a topic judges are likely to be sentimental about!

2. Give credit where credit is due. No, I don’t believe that you discovered that Caenorhabditis elegans is a good model system for neurological studies all by yourself. Nor do I believe that the lab at Stanford where you carried out the study only provided “materials and equipment.”

3. Graphs are better than tables. Really, the hour you spend in Excel will be worth it! I promise. No one will be able to understand your results if it’s just a 24×24 table of numbers. Your data are worth it! Extra credit: change the formatting of the default Excel bar graph. I saw so many graphs that looked identical. Stand out!

4. Read the directions. Imagine a world in which everyone read the directions. What a wonderful world that would be!

5. Enter a unique category. In this science fair, the environmental category was oversubscribed. In particular, projects related to soil sampling were popular. In another category, chocolate chip cookie projects abounded. While cute, cookie projects are likely to make judges hungry and therefore cranky. Originality in project design will reap rewards.

It occurs to me that much of this advice is applicable to more of life than just science fairs. Perhaps the science fair is the ultimate microcosm of human existence?! If anyone else has judged a science fair, I welcome your additions in the comments below. Did you find the experience to be interesting, inspiring, or just so-so?





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