Science Fair

Science Fair Rules

I could have use the title “Science Fair Rocks” but I do really want to talk about rules. As many of you know, I help run the annual Mercer Science and Engineering Fair (see “Mercer Science and Engineering Fair”) in Mercer county, New Jersey. I took our Senior Division grand prize winner (Fig. 1) to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) that was held in Phoenix last year. If you are in Los Angles the week of May 11th and have time to stop by on Thursday you can see all the top projects from around the world. There will be more than 1600 students showing off their work.

Figure 1. Jong Ho Lee was the 2013 Mercer Science and Engineering Fair grand prize winner for his project “Small molecule grafted quantum dot white light emitting diode.”

ISEF is a bit bigger than our fair. We run about 400 students each year but it for grades 4 through 12 instead of just 9 through 12. We are almost all digital these days with a website for online registration but we still require the ISEF forms for grades 6 through 12.

Of course there are rules even for grades 4 and 5 in addition to having to do a project, register it and show it at the fair much to the chagrin of children and many parents. A number of things have made the process much easier that you might not have considered. In particular, the plethora of smartphones and digital cameras makes the job of posting the applications online easier because each application consists of data entry of the forms and uploading the photos or scanned images of the physical forms.

We need the latter because of the signatures. We have actually had 73 applications that used digital signatures this year. All the forms use Adobe Acrobat PDF files and luckily the Acrobat Reader is free otherwise it would not be possible. We use a slightly modified version of the standard ISEF files.

We have a lot of forms to go through and we do that for all the applications. Luckily I have help although I manage the website. On the plus side, all the reviews are done online including checking the uploaded forms.

But I wanted to talk about rules. All the applications are reviewed before the fair. On the plus side, we have not had to disqualify anyone lately because we normally pre-certify applications before students start their projects when they are dealing with things like people, animals, microorganisms or things that go boom.

The deal is that we are affiliated with ISEF and they have their own set of rules that we must follow. It is a gripe many have with our fair that they have to fill out all these forms. Actually it is not that bad. There are really only three pages and most of that is name, address, phone number and project title. The number of forms increases when you get to dealing with the likes of people, animals, microorganisms or things that go boom.

Why you might ask is all these necessary?

Well, we are trying to foster science and engineering done the right way and that means not shocking your sibling by plugging a wire into a 110 V outlet and touching them with the bare wires or feeding a cat something they should not be eating. The biggest problem is usually someone who wants to culture bacteria at home. That is definitely now allowed but even scientists that know better think they should be able to do it.

The rules that apply to most projects tend to be easy to address and make sense to most people but often overlook details when dealing with things like privacy and safety. These are rules that are formalized in industry and there are standard operating procedures (SOP) that must be followed. There are usually good reasons for these but they were often crafted based on a lot of experience. This is something that students lack and many parents and even teachers may be unaware of especially when students delve into realms their mentors have not even dreamed of.

All of this culminates in the science fair this weekend when all the students and parents descend on Rider University. This will be our 61st fair. It will be a lot of fun and the students have learned a lot.

I also wanted to put in my normal pitch for judges, sponsors and support. These events tend to be run by volunteers but they do require a lot of help. I tend to be the person most of the students, parents and teachers see because I make sure the rules are followed and help them through the process but it is all the other people that make this happen that allows the students to show off their effort and knowledge.

Most of you that work in industry can be judges and we always need more. Check out our sponsors one our website because the fair would not happen without them. And there are also the Mercer Science and Engineering Club members that do the heavy lifting behind the scenes to coordinate and manage the fair.

Hopefully you have a fair near you and your children participate if they are younger. If they are older, like mine, then you might even be able to convince them to help out as well and even judge. Our kids have done this but, then again, they are all engineers (see “Dragon Runner Shows Up At Wedding As Ring Bearer”).

If you are in the Lawrenceville, NJ area the award ceremony is 7pm on Tuesday. Everyone is invited. See you at the fair.

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