What Judges Expect

Recently, one of our judges was asked for some guidance in preparing for the judges interviews, surely the most uncertain and stressful part of any science fair. In the hope that this guidance will prove useful to others, we reproduce the response here, essentially unedited.

From: A Concerned Parent
To: An Experienced Judge
Subject: What Do Judges Really Expect?
My daughter is having a science fair presentation tomorrow. From a judge's point of view, what is it that she really needs to know? Help please.
Thanks, A Concerned Parent

From: An Experienced Judge
To: A Concerned Parent
Subject: Re: What Do Judges Really Expect?

As a judge,

During the student's presentation, I make it a point to ask questions. There are several reasons for this, mostly having to do with making sure that I understand what the student did and why. But I also ask questions to make sure the student is thinking -- I've listened to students who went through a pitch that was like a tape recording -- I want to make sure that the student isn't just reciting a script, and that she is familiar enough with her work that she can deviate from her description for a moment to elaborate on what I ask. It is very helpful to me as a judge if the student conducts a coherent, well-organized discussion about the experiment, using the display as a visual aid to show what she is describing. I cannot judge the project versus others in the Fair if I don't understand what the student did and found.

Something that experienced Science Fair judges know is that sometimes the student just doesn't know what he accomplished. The most memorable one for me (I never met the student, only read the Abstract) had to do with mold on clarinet reeds -- we judges had the toughest time figuring out what category that one belonged in, because the Abstract didn't help us understand whether the project was about sound quality, materials degradation, how to prevent or kill the mold, what conditions caused it to grow, or how lazy someone could be about maintaining the instrument. At the very least, I expect the student to convey to me why the subject of the experiment is interesting or important.

It is not unusual for me to ask a student "what prompted you to pursue this project", and "because I had to do a Science Fair project to get an A" is just as valid as "I wanted to make sure low-flow toilets worked effectively before my parents replaced the toilets in our house".

Much of this advice will not help if the experiments have not yet been done and the data have not been tabulated. Assuming that has happened, then make sure the display tells the story, and ask your daughter tonight to set it up and spend five minutes describing it to you. She needs to figure out how to succinctly describe her work.

In the State Science Fair, we judges typically try to spend about eight minutes with each student, but a student cannot expect us to spend 20 minutes just with her; we have to move on to the next project so that all projects can get an adequate review. If a student can't find a way to talk about his work for at least five minutes, then I figure he doesn't know what he did. If a student can't completely describe his work in five minutes, then I figure his thoughts about it are disorganized. If a student can't answer questions about it, then I figure maybe he didn't do it himself.

Good judges strive to make the Science Fair a valuable experience for the students. It is an opportunity for students to apply and demonstrate skills of presentation and thought organization that will be useful during their future careers. Most of us craft our questions to inspire the students to do a better job of presenting their ideas. We regret that there are fewer judges than students, so your daughter will spend most of her time waiting between visits by judges; this is an opportunity to learn what other students around her have done and learned.

Best of luck to your daughter at tomorrow's Science Fair!
Last updated: Fri Feb 16 19:14:29 PST 2001
California State Science Fair / What Judges Expect / CalifSF@usc.edu