What would possess someone to take two days off of work, drive or fly to the competition city, read thirty or more posters, interview fourteen science students, and then lock themselves in a room until the winners are determined, all for no pay other than food? As the judging day winds down (I’m writing this on the plane on the way home), I find myself recollecting some of the answers I heard from other judges.
Some of the judges are former ISEF finalists, like myself, while others have children or grandchildren who are current or former science fair competitors*. Some judges are mentors of students presenting their research at the fair* and have accompanied their students to the fair as chaperones.** Some judges seem to be science fair junkies that follow the fair from year to year and place to place. These seem mostly to be retired teachers and professors.
A lot of the judges are local: recruited from the ranks of local universities, research institutes, government agencies, and private industry. This year I saw CDC scientists, and when the fair was in Portland a few years ago, Intel turned out a huge crew of judges. Some of these local judges are influenced by peer pressure and the promise of a few service lines on their next annual review. I heard rumors that the governor of Georgia had encouraged eligible state employees to judge this year, and my category had several state employees judging.
Whether local or distant, untenured professor or senior government researcher, the one common denominator between all of the ISEF judges is a passion for science education and an intense desire to foster and encourage the future scientists and engineers of the world.
* All potential conflicts of interest are scrupulously avoided.
** Every student has an adult-in-charge. Sometimes the whole family will come along. Other times a teacher or regional fair director will serve as the chaperone. Sometimes it’s all of the above. There may be 1500 finalists, but when you factor in judges, teachers, fair directors, parents, siblings, volunteers, and observers, I’m guessing that the total registration exceeds 5000. So it’s a very respectable size for a scientific meeting.