ISEF 2008: Why we judge

i-5967dc2922afde9f1adc0df6992156ff-isef_logo_newsm.gif 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.


  1. #1 ...tom...
    May 15, 2008

    Having done a local or regional science fair in the past, I can empathize with the apparent feelings of surprise, fun, and pride, and admiration that these ISEF posts are bringing from you.

    It is nice to see and hear what is ‘right’ with our youth rather than yet another story about what is ‘wrong’ with them.

    Great series of posts.


  2. #2 Prof-in-training
    May 15, 2008

    I was a judge at the finals of a national high school science competition last year and to say that I was humbled by the quality of the presentations and the professionalism of the students would be an understatement. The hardest things about the weekend were:
    (1) trying to come up with questions that made it seem as though I understood the research (I didn’t understand ANY of them);
    (2) dealing with parents and judges who wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing my student’s identification badge; and
    (3) overcoming the chauvinistic and patronising attitudes of my fellow judges (I was the only female, the only judge under 60yo and the only first timer).

    All those things aside though, it was an amazing experience and certainly made me confident that a new generation of scientists is about to spring forth.

  3. #3 BerryBird
    May 17, 2008

    Last month, I volunteered to judge an undergraduate research poster session at my alma mater. The student research is exciting stuff, and participating in the process as a judge is very rewarding. Even though I had to use vacation time to get off work, I would do it again in a heartbeat.

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