How to be a Good Science Fair Judge
Being a judge for the California State Science Fair is hard, but it's
worth the effort. You are making a memorable impact on the lives of
some very talented young people. For some students, you are the first
professional they have ever met who does a science or engineering job
for a living. Part of your job at the Science Fair is to be an
ambassador for your profession. Some students' perceptions of you
could influence their career choices. It is a good idea when you
approach a student to introduce yourself and describe your background.
As a judge, it is most important for you to show the students that you
are both fair and knowledgeable. Your fairness is indicated by a few
This sounds simple, but can be challenging to implement.
- You spend about the same amount of time with each student
- You listen to the student's explanation of the project
- The questions you ask are intended to find out more about the
project and how it was done -- not to embarrass or
intimidate the student
Your best tool in judging is your ability to ask questions. Be
sensitive to what the student knows. You can always ask questions that
the student can answer, and keep a conversation going for ten minutes.
There are some questions all students should be able to answer,
including variations on:
(Note: these are only suggestions to keep the dialog going. You may
find other questions to be more useful in specific interviews.)
- How did you come up with the idea for this project?
- What did you learn from your background search?
- How long did it take you to build the apparatus?
- How did you build the apparatus?
- How much time (many days) did it take to run the experiments
(grow the plants) (collect each data point)?
- How many times did you run the experiment with each configuration?
- How many experiment runs are represented by each data point on
- Did you take all data (run the experiment) under the same
conditions, e.g., at the same temperature (time of day)
- How does your apparatus (equipment) (instrument) work?
- What do you mean by (terminology or jargon used by the student)?
- Do you think there is an application in industry for this
- Were there any books that helped you do your analysis (build
- When did you start this project? or, How much of the work did
you do this year? (some students bring last year's winning
project back, with only a few enhancements)
- What is the next experiment to do in continuing this study?
- Are there any areas that we not have covered which you feel are
- Do you have any questions for me?
One type of question to avoid is "Why didn't you do....?" Probing
questions are useful to stimulate the thought processes of the
student. A solution or extension to the work presented may be obvious
to you with all of your years of experience, but the student may not
understand why you're asking such a question. If you ask a question of
this type, be sure to imply the correct intent, as in "Could you have
done... ?" or "What do you think would have happened if you had
done....?" When phrased this way the question is an invitation for the
student to think about the experiment in a different way, and can turn
the question into a positive experience.
Guiding the Discussion
Sometimes we come across projects in technical areas with which we are
intimately familiar, and the student just didn't get it -- they made some
incorrect assumptions, missed a key indicator in the data, came up with
a false conclusion, or didn't look at or understand some common
principles. It can be tempting to share your knowledge about the
topic, to help the student appreciate what happened (or should have
happened) in the experiment. Some judges have been observed to
enthusiastically pontificate while a student stood idly listening.
Before you do this, please consider that these students are smart, and
the next judge may hear the student parroting back the knowledge you
imparted. You may try with your questions to lead the student toward
the right answers, but please don't give the answers. If you really
feel compelled to make explanations, save them until near the end of
the judging time when your knowledge will not be relayed to judges
following you. Alternatively, you may give the student your card and
invite future discussion about the project. Remember to be sure that
your discussion meets the following Science Fair objectives to involve
the student in discovery:
Finally, during your panel's meetings, please inform your fellow judges
of those students to whom you have provided analysis or information.
This is in fairness to other students who are being judged in your
category and who may not have received the benefit of your knowledge.
- Your conversation should resemble a discussion with an esteemed
colleague who is having difficulty with some research --
together, you talk through the situation to mutually arrive at
- The student should be doing most of the talking;
- Coax and/or coach the student into realizing and describing the
correct conclusions; it's the student's project, not yours;
- Encourage the student to conduct more experimentation in order
to verify the new conclusions.
Since you are a judge, most students instinctively think of you as an
intimidating figure. The more you can dispel this image, the more
likely you are to help the student be less nervous, and get a better
discussion. Again, simple things can make a difference:
To assure the perception of fairness, you also need to make sure that
one student doesn't monopolize your time. Some have a well-rehearsed
pitch that may prevent you from having a chance to interact with the
student. You have to find some way to break the pattern, and again,
your tool is questioning. Politely interrupt with a question, usually
in the form of "I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch the relationship
between that adjustment and this result," or even some of the "any
student can answer" questions, like "How many times did you run the
experiment with each configuration?" and "How many experiment runs are
represented by each data point?" The idea is not to stop the student
from talking, but to get the student to interrupt the tape recording
and think about what is being communicated to you.
- Make eye contact with the student;
- If the student is short and you are tall, stoop, bend, or squat
down to lower your eye level (if your knees won't allow this,
ask to judge the Senior category);
- Tip your head to the side a little to indicate interest (this
is a universal nonverbal form of communication; even your dog
- If you wear glasses, look at the student through them, not over
the top of the frames;
- Whenever a student shows a good idea, clear chartsmanship, a
clever way to get expensive results with inexpensive equipment,
or anything you can compliment, be sure to use a compliment;
- Use a tone of voice that indicates interest or inquisitiveness,
not scepticism or contempt.
Many of these students are exceptionally bright, and it is easy to
think -- when facing an incredibly impressive display and a supremely
confident student -- that this student's research is beyond your
knowledge. If a project is really and truly completely outside your
experience, you are still knowledgeable in the area of problem-solving
and the scientific method. Concentrate on these aspects rather than
the details of a particular project.
Young people have largely developed their conversation techniques
through their interactions with other young people. They tend to
actively converse on topics that they are most knowledgeable about.
When teenagers are faced with a discussion they don't grasp, they
typically lose interest and look bored. If you keep appearing to be
interested, no matter what is said, the student will assume you grasp
what's going on. When you ask questions, even the "any student can
answer this" type of questions, the student assumes you have kept up
with the discussion and are maintaining an interest in their work. You
may be struggling during the student's whole pitch to come up with
something -- anything -- to ask that doesn't sound completely ignorant,
but the student doesn't know how little of the information makes sense
to you. Keep asking questions until it does make sense. No matter how
you handle this situation, please do not tell the student how little
you understand (we don't want a student to tell a parent that the
judges didn't know anything about the topic). Remember, you are not
the only judge who will talk to this student. If something is not
completely clear, bring it up in the judging meeting; judges who are
familiar with the applicable science will have sorted it all out.
At the other extreme there are a few projects that are "snow jobs"
which make it to the State Science Fair. Sometimes you can ferret out
a "snow job" by simply asking for explanations of words that the
student uses; don't assume the student knows what the technical terms
mean. They may also not know what a piece of equipment does, how it
works, or why it was used. Go into one of these discussions with the
attitude that, if the student can't explain it to your satisfaction,
then the student really doesn't understand the science of what's going
on. Chances are, if it doesn't make sense to you, it doesn't make
sense. Of course, as with all questions or concerns that arise,
discuss these projects during the judging session; there will probably
be others on your panel with similar reservations.
Determining the Winners
When you return to your judging panel and deliberate on the projects,
you can use a few simple criteria for selecting the winners:
High marks go to:
- The quality of the student's work is what matters, not the amount
- Team projects are judged like other projects -- it is the
quality of the work that matters (an individual project of
equal quality to that of a team project may be ranked higher
because of the comparatively greater effort required by the
- A less sophisticated project that the student understands gets
higher marks than a more sophisticated project that is not
- Access to sophisticated lab equipment and endorsements from
professionals do not guarantee a high quality project (Did the
student really understand what was going on?);
- It's okay if the student ended up disproving the objective or
hypothesis of the experiment.
Low marks go to:
- Genuine scientific breakthroughs
- Discovering knowledge not readily available to the student
- Correctly interpreting data
- A clever experimental apparatus
- Repetitions to verify experimental results
- Predicting and/or reducing experimental results with analytical
- In engineering categories, experiments applicable to the "real world"
- Ability to clearly portray and explain the project and its results
Although the most obvious reason for your being a judge at the Science
Fair is to assist in selection of the projects that get prizes, the
good judge knows that this is an important experience in the life of
every participant. Please do your best to make sure that all of the
participants remember the Science Fair as a positive experience in
- Ignoring readily available information (e.g. not doing basic
- An apparatus (e.g. model) not useful for experimentation and
- Improperly using jargon, not understanding terminology, and/or
not knowing how equipment or instrumentation works
- Presenting results that were not derived from experimentation
(e.g. literature search)
Fri Apr 11 21:45:54 PDT 1997
California State Science Fair
How to Be a Good Judge