Welcome to The STEM Sessions Podcast. I am Jarl Cody, your host and narrator.
Over the course of six weeks this Spring, I served as a volunteer judge in three Science & Engineering Fairs; a local county fair, the state fair, and the international fair. Originally, I had planned to only judge at the state fair, but then a co-worker happened to be coordinating the judging for the country fair and asked for volunteers. The international fair then contacted the state judges looking for volunteers. Having somewhat of a martyr complex, I said, “sure, count me in” to both.
Despite having judged in the state competition before, I failed to realize how big of a commitment I was signing up for. It consumed most of the hours I have set aside every week for non-work, non-home, non-pets, and non-wife tasks; including working on this podcast, which is why my publishing schedule has been infrequent and erratic lately… Well, that’s only partially true. I’ve just been lazy, too.
That said, I had a lot of fun judging the three science and engineering fairs. I learned our kids aren’t hopeless. Many have good heads on their shoulders. So I figured I’d share the experience here, in hopes it encourages more folks to volunteer at their science and engineering fairs.
And one other thing, this episode is less formal than those before it. The content is my personal anecdotes and experiences, and therefore my opinion. There may also be a bit of snarkiness…
This is The STEM Sessions Podcast – Episode 11. Let’s Go to the Fair.
My first experience as a volunteer science fair judge was the California Science & Engineering Fair (CSEF) in April 2019. As the name implies, this is the state level competition. Winners from the district and county science fairs gather at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Students set up their projects in the various meeting rooms and exhibit halls, including under the wings of the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
Before orientation, judges were treated to a nice breakfast spread of pastries, fruit, donuts, bagels, coffee and juice. Lunch was not as impressive. Basic sandwiches and chips, and they ran out of beverages by the time half of us had picked up our lunch.
I was assigned to the Applied Mechanics Junior Division – projects done by students in sixth to eighth grade. We took turns interviewing the kids in front of their posters in ten minute increments. I recall there being approximately 20 projects in our category. Projects ranged from earthquake damping systems to robotic hands to bio-plastics to catcher mitt testing.
The interview process was fatiguing. We were on our feet the entire time, in mostly static positions. And my voice eventually wore out, because you had to be loud enough to speak over the noise of a hundred simultaneous interviews. There is no time to review the projects on the fly, so you better have done so ahead of time.
After interviews, we met in our deliberation room, which we shared with another group of judges. CSEF uses no official scoring system, but provide criteria to evaluate, so ultimately, you’re really just ranking the projects against each other. Our lead judge created a spreadsheet in which we each ranked our top six projects, and points were assigned to each project. After the rankings were entered, we had a clear winner.
The other group of judges decided to openly debate the merits of each project, and some of those debates got rather… passionate. Openly debating like that seems so inefficient, and it takes only one or two arrogant personalities to ruin it. In fact, they were still arguing when we left for the day.
I volunteered again in 2020, but CSEF was eventually cancelled because of COVID. I think that was during the first “everyone stay home so we can flatten the curve and get back to normal in a few weeks” stage. Definitely disappointing.
This year, 2021, the science fair organizers decided to conduct everything virtually.
In March, I judged the applied mechanics junior division in the Orange County Science & Engineering Fair (OCSEF). We reviewed about ten projects ranging from starch based bio-plastics to paper origami packing material to toys for cerebral palsy patients to earthquakes. The students uploaded their project material, which was essentially their poster presentations, videos, and supporting data. We sent our lead judge our top two picks, and filled in the scoring forms. No interviews for this level.
In April, I judged the state fair, again in the applied mechanics junior division. We conducted real-time interviews with the students and real-time judging sessions via a custom, in-browser video conferencing app. And, in the words of the Chosen One, this is where the fun began.
Zoom this software was not. Microsoft Teams this software was not. Google Chat this software was not.
The fair organizers held mandatory training sessions, but no amount of training could mitigate the many bugs that would pop up. The software wouldn’t remember your settings and made you select the camera, microphone, and speaker for each session. Sometimes the session wouldn’t loaf, requiring you to close and reopen your browser. And how about the system wide pop up that read “the servers are at capacity, please turn off video.”
In spite of the bugs, we got thru it. We had nine projects including elevator safety, mechanical assistive exoskeleton, testing the center of gravity’s effect on velocity, and another earthquake project.
The fair required two judges in each interview to ensure a judge was never alone with a student. Certainly a good idea, but the interview times were so short and the schedule so tight, approximately ten minutes with a minute between interviews, if one judge had a lot of questions or advice or liked to hear himself talk, the other judge may only have squeezed in a single question.
As in 2019, our judging discussions consisted of each judge ranking the top six projects, and then working out any ties. After ranking, the top project was clear. However, I had ranked this particular project near the bottom, so I felt compelled to explain my reasoning to my fellow judges.
To me, this project was a kit build. Nothing was investigated. No science verified. No optimization. The student set goals to build a product that was inexpensive and portable, yet I could find dozens of versions online that are less expensive and even more portable because they weigh less and are more rugged. So in my mind, he failed his objectives and showed no design iterations. He built his prototype, claimed it worked as expected, and took credit for meeting his goals.
A couple of judges changed their rankings as a result of my concerns, but this created a tie between the kit build project and the project I had ranked first. Our lead asked how we should resolve the tie, and I suggested we decide via the number of first place rankings each project received, even though that would mean my horse would lose the race. Everyone agreed, and our job was done.
Finally, in early May, I judged the International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF) in the Engineering Mechanics division. As the name implies, the ISEF brings together the state competition senior division winners and winners from many other countries. There are so many projects, judging occurs over four days.
Here we had 20 minutes to interview the students. A proctor was assigned to each student, and interviews were recorded to ensure there were no shenanigans. We used the same video software as we did for the CSEF, and surprisingly all of the bugs had been shaken out.
I interviewed 12 projects. Several underwater vehicle experiments, wind turbines, an omni-directional treadmill, a basketball rebounder – which, incidentally was much better than the one I just saw on Shark Tank – and microscopes made from old optical drives just to name a few. Most were from the U.S. but I also interviewed students from Russia, Georgia, and Nigeria. I was concerned with potential language barriers, because I have a lot of difficulty comprehending accents, but it worked out.
In some interviews, I was the only judge. Most often, though, I was paired with another. One interview even had three judges.
Scoring criteria was provided to us, including maximum allowed scores for each. I made a spreadsheet to make it easier on myself, and entered scores based on the project material ahead of the interviews. The few minutes I had between interviews was just enough time to enter scores for the interview and make updates to my pre-entered scores. Then I simply had to enter the final tally on each project’s page.
Overall, I found all of these experiences to be fun, rewarding ways to volunteer. It’s certainly a commitment of time and energy, and one you can’t procrastinate on, but I still plan to make it an annual tradition
Now, for any students listening, here are a few tips.
When you’re summarizing your project at the beginning of the interview, don’t read what you’ve already posted. The judges have read and studied it. Instead, rephrase the summary or bring a new spin to the table.
Projects do not need to change the world or revolutionize an industry. They can be straightforward questions about how something works. Set simpler goals or hypothesis, and crush them. A smaller objective, but thoroughly completed, is better, at least in my eyes, than a lofty objective that’s incomplete.
Similarly, be proud of your project. But don’t boast in your conclusion that your project will advance a technology by decades. More than likely, it won’t, and a judge like me will roll his eyes. Do great science or engineering, and let it speak for itself.
And no more earthquake projects. I realize when residing in California, earthquakes are a way of life, but they don’t have to be a way of science fairs, too.
Thank you for listening to The STEM Sessions Podcast.
This episode was researched, written, and produced by me, Jarl Cody.
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Until the next one, stay curious.