How to Succeed at Science Fairs
I’ve been moderately successful at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition (BTYS) and Sentinus N.I. Young Innovators (Special Award in the former and 2nd Overall in the latter), and I’m friends/acquaintances with a lot of people who’ve won really big awards and/or competed at international fairs, so here’s my advice on how to do a good science fair project.
Note: This applies to big science fairs, not school ones. If you want a quick-fix, go over to sciencebuddies or somewhere and investigate pH in fizzy drinks.
Everyone probably says this, but time is the most important part. Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need, and then more than that. I can’t stress enough how much time runs away with you — even if you get started immediately rather than procrastinating, something will go disastrously wrong and set you back if your project is technically challenging in the slightest.
Projects that do well in the Young Scientist tend to take around a year, I’m told — although you can partially escape this if your project is programming-based, because you don’t have to wait on real-world samples and equipment and the like.
This is something I learned the hard way. For my most recent project, I had to commute two hours by train up and back to a lab every time I wanted to work on my project, because the facilities to do what I needed are rare and very specialised (nanotech in Ireland). Add school and supervisor constraints to that, and I could only do one or two days manual work on my project per week. I spent the rest of the time reading, doing theoretical stuff and worrying — mainly worrying — when there was nothing I could do. It would’ve been much better to have a project wherein I could work on at least part of it at home, in school or in a local lab.
Because worrying took up a lot of my mental energy, but ultimately got nothing done. Sending emails is not researching, and can give the illusion of progress.
Find something you have the resources to do. It doesn’t matter if it’s hard, but just make sure you can do it without depending too much on things you can’t control.
To take the example I mentioned above, the good thing about programming is that it usually just depends on how much work you put into it. If your project is possible, how fast it happens depends on you. You don’t need to worry about outside influences. I met a guy last year at BTYS who won loads of big awards with a project he told me took him three weeks.
(Don’t use this as an excuse to procrastinate — better to take three weeks and have the project finished in October than to run out of time.)
Another one I learned the hard way — technically challenging projects with incremental progress are for PhDs, high-concept, dramatic projects are for science fairs. Just like with writing a novel, it is really important that you can summarise your project in a line.
Take the trio* who won the BTYS in 2013, then the European competition and the Google Science Fair, for example: here’s their BTYS project title:
A statistical investigation of the effects of Diazotroph bacteria on plant germination.
Gets their project across well without alienating the public. But they made it even shorter and more to-the-point for the online Google Science Fair, with:
Natural Bacteria Combating World Hunger
High-concept, simple and with obvious impact. Judges love to ask about applications of your project, but it’s even better when they’re immediately obvious.
Two of the girls (Ciara and Emer) recently launched a startup that’s even more succinct: Germinaid — because their research helps crops germinate faster.
*Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow.
Pitching skills are a must. Judges have dozens of projects to see, and they don’t have time to parse out the meaning of your project if you don’t first hook them. Judges will fight for you if you grab them.
You also need to pitch your pitch, i.e. have a few different versions for different age groups and education levels. You’re not going to give the same speech to a primary school student as you would to a professor in your field. Now, I’m not saying to learn a speech off (that’s disingenuous, in my opinion). But you do need to practise, and as you practise talking about your project you’ll probably find that there’s a logical order in which to describe its parts.
Quick tips: be animated, be modest, be competent.
Hope a judge doesn’t ask you questions you don’t know the answer to. This shouldn’t happen, if you thoroughly know your project and have steered the pitch right, but it does. Don’t let hesitation show.
You need to make your project personal somehow. Yet another thing I failed to do, and it cost me. I worked on a graphene sensor for a protein indicative of a type of brain tumour, and one of the first things a press interviewer asked me was:
So, who do you know with a brain tumour?
Most people with this sort of topic can say “Oh, my uncle died of pancreatic cancer so…” but I didn’t. It was definitely my own idea, but I just got it by reading and studying up on things and brainstorming (with a pinch of inspiration). Nothing glamorous or heartwarming. In fact, the part I was most interested in was the chemistry of functionalizing the graphene, not the brain tumours.
People want a story, and while that’s not always fair, it’s true.
For example, my former roommate Rachael came 2nd Overall at BTYS this year, and she could tell the judges that her improved boxing hand wrap came from her experiences, because she’s a boxer.
It’s best to find a project that solves a problem you or someone you know has. That way, when the judges ask where you got your idea, you won’t be thinking “It’s a long story.”
This is so important. Finish your project, and do thorough statistical analysis. Not only will it be marked well, it makes you a lot more confident talking to judges to be able to say “This result is definitely true” (though probably not in those exact words). A completed project that you understand is better than something impressive where you couldn’t do what you promised. Keep religiously to your proposal or improve on it.
This is where the almost supernatural planning skills you need for #1 (Time) come in too. You need to estimate how much work you can get done in a given amount of time, and unless you have a lot of science fair experience you’re almost certainly overestimating.
As Intel ISEF kicks off, I hope this gives you food for thought. Science fairs can be life-changing but they sure as hell aren’t easy. I’m sharing everything I know here, which may or may not be wise, but you’re welcome.