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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.