John Douglass,* a neurobiologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has judged both grade-school and high-school science fairs, local and international. Here are his pointers for parents:
It's hard to cut corners on a science project without it showing up. Some students think if they produce a colorful, flashy poster, they're going to come out ahead. But judges are looking well beyond that for solid content and creativity, as well as organizational and observational skills.
Don't be discouraged if you find that other contestants have had access to sophisticated lab facilities or equipment unavailable to your child. Students who've worked entirely on their own with modest resources still produce winning projects. Think high quality, not high-tech.
I enjoy interviewing kids about their work because it tells a lot about how well they understand their projects and how much they put into it. For those students whose projects aren't particularly well organized on paper, conversing with the judge can make all the difference. And judges want the opportunity to be encouraging--to serve as role models.
If your area sponsors large events such as the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), older kids can really broaden their scope. They'll see students from different states and foreign countries competing for major cash prizes and scholarships. They'll also rub shoulders with a mixed bag of interesting types: amateur astronomers, members of the armed forces, research scientists, and corporate sponsors and recruiters. It's a fascinating glimpse of what the future holds.
* When John Douglass was growing up in Oberlin, Ohio, his bedroom was jammed with grubby caged specimens. His parents never knew what would materialize from under the bed or out of a shoebox. But they tolerated it all with patience, good humor, and plenty of support. Of course he grew up to be a scientist.