Saturday, March 17, 2012

'Tis the Season for Science Fairs

The Smell of Science Fair is in the Air!

Well, it was a little bit like Christmas for me today. I judged at the Northern Illinois Region 5 IJAS Science Fair held at Northern Illinois University. This is the first student research fair that I judged where I didn't have students competing. However, I couldn't help but be nervous for the well-attired students I saw carrying oversized posters as I drove onto the campus.

I know how much work goes into these projects. I know how invested students become in their topics. I know how much support teachers and parents must provide to get a student this far in the competition. I also know how nervous students are to present their findings and be "judged" on their work. In some ways, the judges you get can determine
a lot about how well you do. The order in which the judges view the posters also influences the scores. So today as a judge, I did my best to really listen to students and to review their presentation and papers carefully!

At this particular fair, I was happy to learn that pairs of judges work together judging 4 posters in three hours. Experienced judges are paired with less experienced judges, and tables are provided for judges to sit and talk with one another so that they can vet out any discrepancies in their rubric scores-each judge submits their own score sheet. I was paired with a young biology preservice teacher currently student teaching. I feel we worked well together, as our discussions helped us to score the students similarly. Then together the judges are asked to write some narrative comments to return to the student. On this comment sheet they asked judges to make both complements and suggestions for improvement in the categories of: scientific method, oral presentation, the poster itself, and the scientific research paper.

Since I'm in science fair mode, I thought this might be a good time to review some tips for all teachers and parents preparing your kids for any STEM research related competitions. These tips are all discussed in chapter 12 of my book, the STEM Student Research Handbook. So, students, here are my suggestions on how to knock the socks off your competition the day of a science fair.

1. First of all, exude confidence. Easier said than done, I know. But being prepared ahead of time helps. Even if you don't feel confident, you can still pretend!
  • The main way to do this is with eye contact! Really look the judges in the eyes when talking to them. The biggest problem is students looking down at their cards too much, or talking into their poster instead of to the judges! So Eye contact!
  • Watch your use of fillers like "um," "ok," or "ah." Students usually try and fill empty space with these noises out of habit, but a longer silence is MUCH better than these meaningless fillers. Watch out for transitions. This is when fillers make their way into the oral presentation. For example, you just finished explaining your experimental design, and are about to launch into an explanation of the data tables, and in that moment of transition as you lower your head to your notecards, your mouth is saying, "Ummmm." So be cautious of these times between!
  • It will be loud in there, so watch your pitch and intonation. Make sure the judges can hear you, but you don't want to be yelling at them either. Find a happy medium.
2. Next make the graphs and data tables an integral part of the presentation. You spent all this time making the poster, make sure you point to specific parts of the poster when it will support what you are saying.
  • Take a minute to orient your judges to the graph before launching into the minute details. It takes even experts a few moments to understand the structure of what the graphic is trying to portray. The graphs should connect the independent variable and the dependent variable, remind your judges of this. Usually the x-axis is the dependent variable, or what you were measuring, and the y-axis is the independent variable, or the variable you manipulated.
  • Point to the main important findings in your graphs and tables. But do so with detail, not in generalities. For example, don't vaguely point in the direction of your graphs and say, "My experimental group #2 did the best." Instead, point to the critical parts of the graph and use them to highlight differences between the groups. For example you might say, "As my graph shows here [you now point, touching a specific part of the graph] that the control group had an average of 10 less than my experimental group #1, and 20 less than experimental group #2.

3. Connect your independent and dependent variables.
  • Statements about your IV and DV should be made at the time you share your hypothesis, again when highlighting the findings in your graphs/data tables, and yet again when making conclusions.
  • Judges should not leave feeling unsure that you understood these two terms. Everything in your experiment revolves around them!

  • In your conclusion be sure to make a definitive statement of the connection the data allows you to make. Another way of wording this is: "Did the change I make (independent variable) cause the effect (dependent variable) that I measured? And with what certainty? How strongly do my data support or reject the hypothesis?
  • Admit weaknesses in the study (limitations) such as problems with the procedure, or how they were implemented, issues with tools or apparatus? Also make suggestions for how certainty could be improved for future studies on the same topic.
  • If your hypothesis was unsupported (rejected), you need to really think about what that may mean. Is is possible that your data is suggesting that there is NOT a relationship between your IV and DV? If so, that is significant! However, you also need to entertain the possibility that the data did not support your hypothesis because of a poor research design or extraneous variables of which you did not control. Be ready to discuss this with your judges. I have seen very good projects, with strong research designs, have data that did not support the hypothesis. It is NOT a failed experiment!
4. Bridge the gap between the background research you did on your topic and your own experiment. Too many of the projects I've seen have a huge disconnect between these. Its as if they designed an experiment however they wanted, then did some research, that may or may not even line up with the topic studied.
  • If you designed your experiment after doing careful research (as you should have) make sure the judges know this! Share a bit of what you learned of what others have done, and how what you learned helped you develop the methods that you used in your experiment.

5. After you have completed your oral presentations for the judges, now comes the scary part, the part you cannot control! The questions. Hopefully your teacher has prepared you for the types of questions you may get, and if you are lucky, you even had a chance to practice this with your classmates before the competition!
  • Use good "wait time." This means, do not rush into answer right away. Allow the question to sink in to give your mind time to construct a descent answer. One way to give yourself this time is to repeat the question.
  • Keep good eye contact. I know this is hard during the question & answer time, but pulling your eyes away makes it seem as if you are unsure! So work on the eye contact.
  • It is conceivable that the judges ask a question that helps you to see a flaw in your study. (I know, right!) Maybe she asks about whether you controlled for a specific extraneous variable, and you're thinking "OMG, I should have done that! Why didn't I think of that?" Its ok if that is what is going on in your head, but what you say should be a little more polished, like this, "That is a great point. I did not consider that when doing my experiment. If I were to do this experiment again, I would control for that by..."
My last piece of advice is, don't sweat it! Even if you know you could have presented better, you probably did much better than you feel the moment it is over! Completing a research of this magnitude is not an easy task, and the journey is the goal, not the destination. Relish your experiences and what you have learned, no matter what the judges say!


  1. Hi Darci! This is Matt, your partner judge. I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed working with you and I hope you feel the same way.

    After leaving the fair, I realized that I had forgotten something important! I meant to ask for your expert advice. I really want to be an awesome teacher and I feel that in order to accomplish that I need to seek advice from those who have the experience that I lack.

    So, what do you think? If you could offer one bit of advice (or three!) to a new teacher, what would it be?

    Thanks again for being a great partner! I had a lot of fun working with you!

  2. Hi Matt, it was great to judge with you at the science fair last Saturday. I was impressed with how well you understood the scientific method and how accurately you assessed a student's level of understanding of that process. Your students are lucky to have you and I'm sure will miss you when you are done student teaching.

    I know how overwhelming becoming a teacher can be but also know, from what little time I've spent with you, that you are dedicated to the time it takes to be great! Feel free to post or email me anytime for advice! I feel one of my major callings in life is to help new teachers!

    Keep in touch!

  3. Engineering projects are usually accomplished in teams. Do science fairs allow for team work?

  4. Dear NumberOne Librarian,

    It depends on the competition and their requirements. At this competition I judged 3 individual projects and one paired project. From the teacher perspective, allowing students to work in teams may decrease the total number of projects they have to faciliate, but with group projects, teachers must also monitor students' cooperative learning issues such as making sure each student is contributing to each stage of the process.


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