November 2023 | Classroom Commentary
Preparing Students for the International Science and Engineering Fair
By Khandi Cooper
I’ve always been a STEM enthusiast, ever since I fell in love with science as a sixth-grader in Brooklyn, New York. I have fond memories of 1997 in particular, the year my teacher, Adonna McFarland-Burns, introduced our class to a FOSS science kit. That’s also when I learned how to calculate the percentage of fat in my food and how to make butter and pickles. Doing those experiments fueled my desire to learn more about the mechanics of science.
Fast-forward to nearly 20 years later, when I had the distinct privilege of serving as Chair of the Science Department at Pine Forge Academy in Pine Forge, PA from 2017-2020. In my first year, we implemented a Science Fair and Robotics program for students in grades 5-9. With its success, I wanted to continue the positive momentum the following year and expose my students to additional science experiments and demonstration opportunities to spark their interest in STEM.
In the summer of 2018, I received an ACS-Hach Professional Development Grant to attend the 25th Biennial Conference on Chemical Education at the University of Notre Dame, where I became even more inspired. There, I learned about other science education resources and activities for secondary students, and also discovered the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). I was inspired to introduce ISEF to the students at my school, because I knew they would do a fantastic job.
I worked diligently for the next couple of years trying to prepare my students for participation in this prestigious event. It was a challenging and rewarding experience for my students, and I’ve had lots of fun guiding them through it. In this article, I’ll explain a bit about how the fair works, and the role the teacher plays in it.
A long legacy of recognizing student excellence
Since the first international competition was held in 1958, more than 75 countries have participated in the ISEF. The competition has three levels: regional, state, and international, and grants monetary awards and prizes to top experiments. Some students compete in local science fairs at their high schools before attending the ISEF-affiliated regional fair, but this is not a requirement. Students and teachers can locate opportunities for participation in regional fairs through the ISEF Affiliated Fair webpage. Many of the regional fairs begin in December and January, though dates vary depending on the location. Many state fairs are held in March, while the international competition is held each May.
Students in grades 9-12 must follow the ISEF rules and regulations, including choosing a project that fits within the 21 ISEF categories and subcategories. For students to advance in the competition, some of the documentation must be verified by their teacher (“adult sponsor”) and also by their parents. At various points throughout the competition, students present their project to panels of judges, who rate their projects using the ISEF rubric. The top projects from each category and subcategory at the regional fair advance to the state fair. At the state fair, a limited number of projects can be nominated to advance to international competition.
Winning student entries are eligible for various awards and recognitions students, and some winners leave the international competition with cash prizes, including a grand prize of $75,000 for “Best in Fair.” Nearly 9 million dollars in prize money was awarded to student winners from all over the world in the 2022-2023 fair year, with the top prize going to a California high school student who designed ExoScout, a system to detect and identify exoplanets that orbit very closely around their stars.
As a teacher who was leading students to participate in ISEF for the first time, it was a humbling but challenging task. The ISEF provides both an Adult Sponsor Checklist and a Student Checklist, which can be helpful when getting started. Additionally, there are several standard forms that need to be reviewed and properly completed in order to be eligible.
Our first challenge was that our school lacked the resources of a science lab, and had limited materials and equipment for students to perform experiments effectively. However, through the AACT Science Coaches Program, I was able to overcome this challenge and support my students. Through this program, a chemistry teacher is partnered with a chemistry professional.
During the 2021-2022 school year, I partnered with Dr. Meredith Storms, who was serving as a Professor of Chemistry at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke. When I shared about our plans to participate in ISEF, and our lack of materials, she and her team graciously donated beakers, flasks, test tubes, test tube holders, crucibles, apparatuses, and other items to my students for their work. In addition to the donation, UNCP students volunteered to judge the students’ science fair projects and speak to my students about life as science majors.
To get students to begin thinking about ISEF at the start of the school year, I provide a Science and Engineering Fair Journal to each student. Included in the journal is an outline of requirements to successfully complete the project, as well as corresponding deadlines based on our school calendar and our region. Parents/legal guardians are also required to read and sign a letter acknowledging their child’s participation in the fair. Students use the journal to document their experimentation throughout the course of the project. During the first quarter of the school year, I do not assign additional homework assignments, so that students can spend the time completing their project.
It’s important that students’ ISEF research and submissions are genuine. I encourage students to choose a topic that interests them, and then plan the steps they need to do in order to arrive at a conclusion. I often show a National Geographic documentary available on Disney+ called “Science Fair” to inspire my students. It illustrates the journey of several high school students from around the world as they prepared for the ISEF. Throughout the video, we pause to discuss ideas for projects. Some of my students work in small teams of two or three, while others work independently. Some topics that my students have investigated in the past include:
- the effect music has on a person’s mood
- developing your own cleaning solution
- creating a low-cost water filter
- identifying skin diseases through image classification
Participation in the school science fair is mandatory for all students at my school. They have time in class to ask questions, work on their experiments, and analyze data. We host a local science fair, and most recently two of our Advanced Placement science students were the first ever from our school to be selected to participate in the regional Science and Engineering Fair in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Participation in ISEF definitely requires more time than is available during the school day. To accommodate this need, I schedule a time to meet with students who need assistance with completing their projects, along with their parents. I also share a presentation explaining the ISEF competition and the importance of their child’s participation during a parent orientation meeting, and I explain the purpose of the science fair, the logistics, and how they can support their student through the process.
I was fortunate to solicit the help and experience of a former mentor, Dr. Elaine Vanterpool, Chair and Professor of the Biological Sciences at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, whom I met in 2019. She gave me the guidance I needed to support my students in this endeavor and helped me better understand the various ISEF categories and documents involved, as well as my own role. As their mentor, I offer students guidance, ensure their projects follow all the ISEF rules, and communicate directly with the regional fair directors whenever necessary.
|Figure 1. One of the author’s students, Inaija Brown, presenting her project, “Water Filtration,” in front of judges at the NC Student Academy of Science Fair.
|Figure 2. Student Kenean Nooks presented his project virtually for the 2023 North Carolina State Science and Engineering Fair.|
I’ve experienced several ISEF-affiliated regional fairs in North Carolina. Today, these are held both in-person or virtually, though prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were all in-person.
The UNC Charlotte Region 6 North Carolina Science & Engineering regional fair was held virtually on February 2, 2023. Students presented their projects via a Zoom platform, and were separated into different breakout rooms with the judges. On the day of the virtual fair, my only responsibility was to ensure the students logged in at their assigned times.
One of my students, Inaija Brown, participated in the Environmental category with her project, “Water Filtration.” She was able to build a low-cost water filtration system using household products, like an empty 2-liter soda bottle and coffee filter paper (see Figure 1). She explained to judges this would be an ideal method for environments that have limited resources but need to purify their water. Inaija won the Environmental Protection Agency award “for students who have outstanding projects in the areas of environmental science and environmental engineering.” Because of this achievement, she was able to participate in the NC Student Academy of Science Fair at the NC School of Science and Mathematics in Raleigh.
Another student, Kenean Nooks (Figure 2), participated in the Technology category with his project, “Using Deep Learning for Early Detection of Skin Diseases: Identifying Skin Diseases through Image Classification.” He created a machine learning project to predict 11 different skin diseases. Kenean placed fourth in the regional fair and advanced to the NC state-level fair, which was held in a hybrid format for the first time in its history. Kenean presented his projects to a panel of judges via an online platform. Unfortunately, he did not advance to the international fair, but he made our school community proud of his accomplishments.
Participation in ISEF can require a significant amount of student time in the lab to properly prepare projects and perform experimental trials. Without a designated STEM lab in my school, the student experiments were either performed at home or in the classroom. Since my classroom is used by other teachers during the course of the day, we had to pack and unpack our science fair materials each day. I hope that in the future my students can have a dedicated space for science fair work.
As science teachers, we are often the catalyst that excites our students and school about science. Through my experience with ISEF, I’ve learned that the enthusiasm of the teacher can give the students the energy they need to achieve their goals. I also found that when faced with any challenge, I need to seek guidance and support. Seeing the excitement in the eyes of my students was well worth it. Their success confirms that they are capable of becoming future innovators, and it gives me the motivation I need to continue inspiring more students to participate in science fairs.