Judging a Science Fair: Behind the Scenes at ISEFJune 20th, 2011
The International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), sponsored by Intel, is a competition near and dear to my heart. The ISEF is the mother of all science fairs; if you’re at a local fair, chances are good that the participants are competing for a spot at ISEF. As a freshman in 1995, my teammates and I won our school’s botany classification for a project that looked at the effect of vitamin C on the growth of Agrobacterium tumefaciens (the bacterium responsible for crown gall disease in plants). Unfortunately, we got thumped at our regional fair and advanced no further. As a senior in 1998, my project on the effect of varying the counteranion present on the critical micelle concentration of tetradecyltrimethylammonium (a cationic surfactant) advanced through my school, regional, and state competitions to the ISEF in Fort Worth. The trip to Texas was great fun.
This year, since ISEF was next door in Los Angeles, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and serve as a judge. The SoCal local section sent out a call for volunteers, and before I knew it, I was not only judging at the fair but also serving as the team leader for the ACS panel. There are two flavors of judging at ISEF: (i) grand awards – where students vie for placement within their category, and (ii) special awards – where students vie for prizes sponsored by outside organizations and companies. We fell into the latter category, deciding how to allocate $10k in prize money posted by the American Chemical Society. This sum was quite respectable. In contrast, the American Physical Society only coughed up $2500, while the American Mathematical Society’s prizes totalled $3000.
Grand awards judges have to follow a strict set of scoring criteria, fill out onerous scorecards, and adhere to an inflexible schedule that tells them what to do every fifteen minutes. Special awards judging is much more fun; you get to set your own rules for selecting winners. Even though a long description of our process will probably bore you, I’ll briefly go through what we did anyway. Perhaps it will be helpful to prospective judges in the future.
On the first day, all of the ten judges in our panel registered and assembled at the designated ACS table in the judges’ lounge (a sparsely populated exhibit hall about the size of an airplane hanger). After exchanging hellos, our group went off individually to assess projects in no particular order. Most people paged through the finalist book then stopped by the project boards. On this first day of judging, this can be done in peace—the students are not present. It was good that we had such a large team of judges with expertise from all across the chemical landscape—even chocolate. It would have been impossible for a single judge to hit all of the projects. Since chemistry has a tendency to rear itself everywhere, we did not limit our consideration to just those projects in the chemistry and biochemistry classifications. We were on the lookout for chemistry everywhere.
We briefly caucused twice that first day to assemble a list of what we thought were serious contenders for prizes. That night, I sorted and typed up the list so we could use it as a reference. It comprised 47 projects across 8 categories. The list also noted whether projects we’re strongly backed by a judge, backed by multiple judges, or poo-pooed by a judge. (There were several projects that were both strongly recommended by someone, yet poo-pooed by someone else.) Whereas Day 1 was a reconaissance operation, Day 2 was devoted to zeroing in on the targets. In the morning session, we took the list and went around interviewing the students at their boards. I was able to hit about 15 kids by lunch.
On Day 1, we went around the table calling out projects we thought were great. On the second day, it was time to get dirty. The list of 47 candidates had to get cut to something managable for the final (afternoon) session of judging. Perhaps because I was team leader—but perhaps because I also enjoyed it—I took shots at several of the youngsters and encouraged reticent judges to do the same. Common criticisms included:
- “Not enough chemistry”
- “Didn’t seem to do most of the work himself”
- “Can’t explain what his project is about”
By the end of lunch, our list of students under serious consideration had been whittled down to around 15-20. In the final session, all of the judges had a chance to talk to the students on the final list they’d not previously visited. We also had the chance to give a second look to those that had been tapped as especially good.
In the final caucus, we had to select a first prize ($4000), second ($3000), third ($2000), fourth ($1000), and six honorable mentions ($0). In deciding the winners, we started from the top down. For each prize, we went once around the table and every judge voted for one project. Following each round of voting, we had a discussion followed by another round of voting without the low-vote getter from the previous round. For each prize, this voting/discussion cycle continued until one project had a majority of the votes. Some votes were close, some were not. In all cases where the votes were close, the loser of the previous round won the next prize, so things went smoothly. It also helped that none of the judges were a-holes; everyone was affable, intelligent, and engaged in the task at hand. Once again, when it came down to making tough decisions, it helped that the expertise of the panel was diversified across all of the sub-disciplines of chemistry.
So, what did we do with $10,000 of your ACS dues? Don’t worry…we spent it well. Linda Wang has a short story on the winners of ISEF in today’s issue of C&EN. It is interesting to note that our first-place winner did not have a project in chemistry…or biochemistry…but in animal sciences. Her project involved isolating antibiotic natural products from coral obtained from the Gulf of Mexico. Despite delays caused by the BP oil spill, she generated a ton of data from HPLC and bioassay experiments; it was very impressive. In fact, the general quality of the projects was impressive across the board.
All in all, judging ISEF for the ACS was a great experience. The “work” aspect of picking winners was not particularly onerous, and it was great to be able to sample such a diverse collection of science under one roof. Also, there is something really satisfying about seeing kids with pure enthusiasm for science (untainted by the cynicism that swells after 5+ years of grad school). Those days for me are long gone. I miss them.