MN State Science & Engineering Fair

Last week I had the pleasure of volunteering as a judge for the Minnesota State Science and Engineering Fair. The top projects from Junior High and Senior High schools all over Minnesota were displayed. “Junior High” or “Middle School” projects encompassed grades 6-8 (which means the students were approximately 11-13 years old) and “High School” projects encompassed grades 9-12 (~14-17 years old).

There were literally hundreds of judges in attendance. It seemed like most of the judges were recruited from the Minnesota Academy of Science membership and from local companies that employ scientists, but anyone with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree or at least two years of experience in the relevant project fields can volunteer to judge those areas. The areas were:

  • Animal Sciences
  • Behavioral & Social Sciences
  • Biochemistry
  • Cellular & Molecular Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Earth Science
  • Engineering: Materials & Bioengineering
  • Engineering: Electrical & Mechanical
  • Energy & Transportation
  • Environmental Analysis
  • Environmental Management
  • Mathematical Sciences
  • Medicine & Health Sciences
  • Microbiology
  • Physics and Astronomy
  • Plant Sciences

There were two types of judges: Grand/General Judge and Special Awards Judge. The Special Awards judges are usually supplied from organizations and businesses that are giving awards to students. Awards criteria for Special Awards can be anything that the organization chooses, and are usually certificates of recognition or cash prizes.  My company sent about a dozen people to judge awards in the fields in which we tend to specialize: Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, Chemistry, Engineering, Medicine and Health Sciences and Microbiology. We were giving out cash prizes and we split the job of reviewing relevant projects up among ourselves.

However, organizations can send in an award without sending in a person to judge for that award. They leave judging up to the discretion of the science fair organizers. If there are judges who finish their assigned categories early, or more judges than are needed, they can get recruited to assign these awards.

Because we sent so many people from our company, a few of us were recruited to be Grand Judges. I was one of those and was to be judging the Plant Sciences, but I arrived (a teensy, miniscule, just a little bit) late and the organizers had assigned that job to someone else by the time I arrived. So I was asked to be a special awards judge for two certificates of recognition, specifically recognizing excellence in science by women presenters.

And I was all like:

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The first award was recognition for Women in GeoScience. There was to be one certificate for a Junior project and one for a Senior project. The second award was recognition for Women In Science, for which there were to be 10 certificates, with three spots to be dedicated to Junior projects.

There were SO. MANY. poster presentations, so this turned out to be a hell of a lot more work than I understood when I first agreed to judge for these awards. To put things in perspective, the goal for my company was to have each person judge no more than 5-7 posters. Grand Judges (those who determine who will advance to the International Science and Engineering Fair) each judge about the same. Depending on the complexity of the project, it can take quite a while to read the poster, grasp the author’s intention, evaluate the quality of the methodology and interview the author.

These special awards, by their definition, required viewing much more than 5-7 posters.

The Geoscience Award thankfully limited the categories to Earth and Planetary Science, Environmental Science and Analysis, Physics and Astronomy, and Plant Sciences. But because they wanted to give one award to a Junior and one to Senior, that doubled the number of posters to view. They had, however, given some criteria for what they wanted to see in a project: Special consideration was to be given to projects that increase public awareness of the geosciences, illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of the geosciences, or promote the sensitivity to the earth as a global system.

The ten Women In Science awards gave ZERO criteria for judging and essentially required that the poor sap who took on the judging consider EVERY FREAKING POSTER that was being presented by a woman. This was rather poor planning on the organization’s part, and I wrote them a letter explaining the difficulties of leaving things this vague. At half time I asked the organizers if there were any other volunteers who could give me a hand, but the stores were tapped. I was advised to do the best I could and was thanked profusely for not throwing in the towel! Since the criteria were vague and the awards were certificates of recognition – not money and not advancement – the consequence of potentially “screwing up” on my part was relatively minor.

I knocked the Women in Geoscience awards out in the morning. The ten Women in Science awards took the rest of the day. To review more efficiently I scanned the abstracts that were printed in the fair catalog, picked out the top 10 (IMHO) exciting or novel Junior projects and top 20 Senior projects and went a-knocking. I had already seen a number of the geoscience categories, so those plus the thirty extra projects made up the sum of my evaluations. Some projects took less time to review, some took more. I read projects and spoke with students up until the last possible minute and then went and made some very hard decisions.


Judges reviewing poster sessions before the stampede of students was allowed in.

At the Junior level, the most common project format was “How does variable x affect a particular outcome?” For example, the dreaded “What kind of music do plants like most?” One of the gems of participating as a Junior-level judge is being challenged with some of leaps (and misses) of logical and scientific thinking. For example, many of the students had a very lax understanding of how to set up their hypotheses; I saw many abuses of the null hypothesis last week. And while most of the students claimed to have controls, many of them got it wrong (e.g. one participant who wanted to know if yoga relieved stress said that her control was that all of the study participants took the same yoga class). To be fair, study controls are a tricky thing and I’ve met a number of graduate-degreed associates who are unclear on the concept.

At the Senior level (and for several Junior posters), some of the projects were so advanced that I had to bring out my smartphone and/or ask presenters to explain things more than once. These kids were mindblowingly AMAZING. I met one girl who had published her study (which she had conducted as an intern at an Ivy-League school) as the first author in a peer-reviewed journal, two who were submitting their projects for publication, one who had discovered three new species of bacteria, and one who was doing a study involving electromagnetic fields who wanted to more precisely measure one of her inputs, so she learned the basics of the programming language, C, and built her own computer to make sure she was accurate…before returning to the larger question.

There were many projects on the topic of climate change and global warming. That was heartening to see as I believe climate change is one of our top scientific challenges. We’re going to need some smart, passionate scientists working on how to keep this rock running for us in the years to come.

At the end of the day I hobbled down to the judge’s lounge for a much-desired cocktail, met up with and shared war stories with my coworkers, and then drove straight home. I was drained for the rest of the night and most of the next day – and that’s not an exaggeration. I was delighted to be exposed to the youthful enthusiasm of the presenters. I was introduced to so many new concepts as well as to truly unique questions and novel research that attempted to fill gaps in our understanding of how the world and technology around us works. It was beyond inspiring – it was exhausting!

I can’t wait for next year’s fair.

MN State Science & Engineering Fair