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Tips for Judging

How fair is the science fair?

Judges are the “referees” in the sport of science fair. As with most refereed sports, the losing teams will often blame the referees for failure and, in some cases that is the case, and in other cases you just got beat. All athletes and sports teams have experienced bad referees, but science fair judges seem above reproach and frequently there is no appeal process, no coach’s challenge, and no instant replay for review. Knowing that, your project must be well executed and well communicated so that “bad calls” are minimized… But as in all judged sports, biases are present, mistakes are made, and the science fair is sometimes anything but fair.

Student Tips for Judging:
• Generally, judges are nice people but unfortunately it only takes one “mean” judge to ruin a student’s experience. However, don’t read too much into body language. Scientists as a group generally lack social skills. Sometimes a judge decides the project is really good, but they need to move on to evaluate all the projects they have been assigned, so they abruptly end the interview and go to the next project. Other times, the judge had decided the project is not in the top tier, comments the student did an excellent job presenting it (because they are just trying to be nice), and then moves on.

• Greet your judge – stand up, look at them, shake their hand, and say “It is nice to meet you, my name is…”

• Be able to summarize your project in 2 minutes, but also have a longer, more detailed presentation ready in case the judge doesn’t have any immediate questions or time constraints.

• Highlight the creative or unexpected aspects of your project. If you encountered any problems along the way that you had to solve, describe that process – judges love the problem solving aspects because it shows you did some thinking (as opposed to just following directions from a project).

• Tell the judges what you learned in a story format.

• Understand why your project is important.

• Show enthusiasm and knowledge.

• Dress neatly, the impression you leave on a judge is critical when they then advocate for your project in the judging room. No gum chewing!

• If you don’t know the answer, it is OK to say “I don’t know”, but think first, is it that you don’t know the answer, or don’t understand the question? Don’t be afraid to say “I’m not sure what you are asking, could you re-phrase it? Or “that is an interesting idea, I hadn’t considered that”

• Know what you would do next (i.e., what is one logical next experiment) because it demonstrates you fully understood the scientific method and your project.

• If the judge recommends an improvement, say “Thank you” and acknowledge it as a good idea.

Questions students should be ready to answer (also good questions as the coach to ask the student):
• Why did you choose that…?
• Did anything surprise you along the way?
• Where did the idea come from?
• Why did you think that would happen?
• How did you measure that?
• Why are your findings important?
• What does that word mean (for all “big” words used)?
• What was your control?
• What were your independent and dependent variables?
• How (and how often) did you replicate the experiment?
• What would be the next experiment you would do?
• What did you learn?
• What was the hardest part?
• What was the most fun?
• Who helped you?
• Where did you get the idea for this project?
• Why did you choose that amount, or measurement, or piece of equipment?
• What research did you do?
• If you had to do it all over again, is there anything you would do differently?

There is a component of judging that is intangible and unpredictable. It is based on the random allocation of projects into rooms or groups. In the ideal situation, all judges would review all projects and all come to one agreement. This is not going to happen because of time constraints. Consequently, your impression on whatever judges you are randomly assigned is critical.

MORE TIPS for the student:
• You need to study your project. You are responsible for every word on your backboard and every concept related to every word on your back board.

• Chances are you did the project a considerable time before the actual judging (especially at the higher levels); go back and re-read the log book and your research paper.

• You need to have an answer ready for: Where did you get your idea? Bad responses (note these are real responses heard while judging) include: “my sister did it last year and won”; “my teacher gave it to us because we are an advanced group”; “my dad found it on the internet”; “my mom thought it would win”; etc

• You need to show enthusiasm and knowledge TOGETHER. Enthusiasm without knowledge makes you a cheerleader, but knowledge without enthusiasm comes across as you “don’t care”, it wasn’t “your project”, or you would rather be anywhere but at this fair. This is really hard for shy kids – so they will need to practice, practice, practice.

• One judge can make a difference – so treat EVERYONE who stops by your project with the utmost respect. Don’t say: “how many more judges are coming, I’m getting tired of this.” Also assume everyone is a judge because they might be in charge of a special award category.

Attire: Depending on your project, you could win while wearing ripped jeans or could lose while wearing dress clothes BUT remember that the impression on the judge is critical and your appearance will factor into that even if it is ever so slight. Also remember that one judge can make a difference – so given the 10% intangible and unpredictable it is still better to dress up than not dress up. So if you hate dressing up – find the least dressy thing that you will not be fidgeting in and put in on for a few hours.

• The INTERVIEW is the KEY at the higher levels. This will make or break the willingness of a judge to advocate for your project.

12 Responses to Tips for Judging

  1. Jen Boland

    Dr. Lyons, I referred to your website to aid in my sanity of nudging my daughter to complete her science fair project and also as a reference for the judging of a science fair I recently participated in in Barrington, RI. Your site it full of great ideas with realistic goals. Thank you so much. Please keep this site up, I have five more years of science fair projects ahead me!! Jen Boland, MSN,ANP.

  2. Dr. Maille Lyons

    Glad I could help – she sounds like a smart kid – I hope she had fun with her project.

  3. JoanS

    Dr Lyons, thank you for these helpful tips. I encountered this site since I am frequently a judge at our local science fairs. I am quite surprised that you would include such a biased generalization as “Scientists as a group generally lack social skills.” in this post. Your work on this blog shows you care a ton about science education in today’s elementary school. Please do not perpetuate inaccurate and out-dated stereotypes.

  4. Dr. Maille Lyons

    Dear Joan,

    I apologize if you were offended by the comment, but I believe it to be an accurate assessment. Please keep in mind it is my opinion – and that I did not claim all scientists lack social skills – oh and that I am a scientist myself.

    Judging science fairs is not standardized, not easy, and not transparent –but you should know that. This website is an effort to help kids and parents through the process.

    Scientists at universities are FLOODED with requests to judge local fairs. I know, first-hand, that many delete the emails without even reading them. The ones that have volunteered (because we don’t get paid) generally like science education and kids, unless their department has required their participation. I hope that all of the ones you have encountered have been pleasant, friendly, and enjoyable to work with.


  5. Pat

    Dr. Lyons, Our elementary school PTA is putting on our first science fair! We have a lot of kids doing the voluntary projects, which is great. My question is this… we don’t want to do 1st place, 2nd place, etc. for the projects, as we feel it’s difficult, and don’t want to discourage the kids. So we are trying to come up with some other types of awards, and I’m wondering if you have any ideas. We were think of something like “Best (or neatest?) display”, “most relevant data”, something along those lines. Do you have any guidelines/ideas on some type of certificates/awards we could hand out? Thank you so much!

  6. Dr. Maille Lyons

    Hi Pat,

    How about:

    Most creative
    Best use of the scientific method
    Best visual display
    Best incorporation of math
    Most original question
    Best presentation of data
    Most intriguing project idea
    Best problem solving
    Best experimental design
    Most challenging question to explore
    Best in physical sciences
    Best in life sciences
    Best in environmental sciences
    Best team project
    Best title

    You could also have a “top 10 projects” without ranking them 1 through 10. I think the more certificates you hand out, the better. Good luck and I would love to hear how it went!


  7. Tuyen

    Hi can you teach me about hypothesis ?

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Sure – the hypothesis is an educated (that means you have done some research and have an idea or “gut feeling”) prediction (scientists don’t like others to think it is a “guess”) for an answer to whatever question you are asking.

      For example: If my question was – What is the effect of salinity on density of water? There are three choices for the hypothesis.


      If salinity increases, then density will increase.
      If salinity increases, then density will decrease.
      If salinity increases, there will be no change in density.

      Does that make sense?

  8. John

    Hi, I don’t know what an abstract is. Can you teach me.

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      An abstract is just a one paragraph summary of the whole project. Use one sentence to state the problem you are addressing or observation made; then one sentence to describe the question; one sentence to indicate your hypothesis; one sentence to describe how you will test the hypothesis (i.e. a broad statement of the procedure, not all the steps); one sentence summarizing your most important results; and a conclusion sentence. You could also add a final sentence describing why your result/conclusion is important

  9. biro jasa stnk

    thnk for information 😀

  10. mithun

    Dr Lyons, thank you for these helpful tips.

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