Every year at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), over a thousand high school students gather from all around the world to present their original research and to meet other young people with a passion for science. Hundreds of judges volunteer their time as well in order to choose the best of the best from the presentations. This year, ScienceBlogs’ own ScienceWoman made the trip to Atlanta to be a judge, though it was hardly her first time attending; not only has she judged before, she actually took the top prize herself when she was in high school, winning a trip to the Nobel Ceremonies in Stockholm. After a week of judging and liveblogging the fair, ScienceWoman answered a few questions for us about the ins and outs of ISEF, and why it is so important to her and many others. She was particularly thrilled, of course, that all three grand prize winners were young science-loving women.
You were a participant once yourself. Do you think that affected the way you judged the projects?
I was a participant for three years when I was in high school. I probably had more sympathy for some of the kids that were really nervous than I might have otherwise.
How does the judging work exactly?
There are judges for the grand awards and judges for the special awards. I was a grand awards judge. There were 550 grand awards judges, which is less than they usually have. The projects are divided into seventeen categories. Each judge sees 10-14 projects in their categories, and each student is seen by 6-10 judges. You choose your category based on your expertise.
The quality of projects must be very high.
It’s pretty impressive. A lot of the projects have impressive titles, but when you get down it to it’s masters or thesis level work. Students know where their projects fit in to their field of study. One professor I was judging with was saying she hoped to get some inspiration for her own research.
How are high school students able to produce this quality of work?
Some students work in laboratories of universities or research institutions, some have high school research mentors, or parents who were doctors.
Do you think the fair gives kids a taste of what it’s like to be in the science community?
Yeah, the judging is a great experience for kids because it’s the first time other people show interest in their work besides their mentors, and they get to meet other kids that are interested in the same things.
So there’s a social aspect then, too.
If you’re the smart dork at your high school, a chance to go and interact with smart dorks from all over the country is the first time you feel that you have peers, and you aren’t weird for reading books and thinking science is cool. My husband and I met at the state science fair when we were in high school and went to the international science fair together. My brother also met his serious girlfriend at an international science fair.
What was cool about this year’s fair?
This year one thing I noticed is that the International students were taking pride in their culture and wearing native dress. There were Japanese students in kimonos. There was a Chinese student in my category that was giving out pins of the Olympic mascot. All the projects are inspirational, but I’m really impressed by the ones that have come that are non-native English speakers and are dealing with translators.
What do you think is the most valuable thing kids take away from their experience at ISEF?
I think the fact that these students are actually doing science gives them a much deeper appreciation for what science is all about than what they’re learning in classes. Even if they don’t go on to do science, that interest continues, and the fact that they have to get up and talk about science really encourages thinking and writing skills. No matter what profession they go into they’re going to benefit. My research mentor, his goal was to have us be good speakers and writers. I definitely feel like I benefited from that.