A No-Frills, Down-to-Earth Survival Guide for Science Fair

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A No-Frills, Down-to-Earth Survival Guide for Science Fair

Yenna Chu, Writer

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Who loves doing a science fair experiment during Christmas break? Nobody. Who loves arguing for hours with a group of strangers with glossy name tags on their chests? NOBODY! Then, what in the world makes your friends show up with colorful poster boards one afternoon in January and love to do it again next year? We already know all the answers to those questions. Science fair often comes with glittering praising words, including a core STEM education, the best way to learn science and engineering concepts and their practical applications, big brownie points for your college applications, and so on. We are smart enough to understand why our school and school division try to encourage more students to join this annual event. But, who loves science fair? Nobody. If you nod your head on that question, perfect. Welcome! This article is solely for YOU. When you finish reading this article, you might feel much more comfortable about standing in front of a three-fold poster board next year.

In ancient China, a super smart guy named Sun Tzu taught in his famous book, the Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”  In other words, if you understand yourself and your enemy, you will be far more likely to win any battle. Cool! To conquer the science fair, let’s investigate it and make ourselves familiar with it first, as the military strategist said so.

Essential Information about Science Fairs

First of all, let’s address some essential information about science fairs. There are two local science fairs Grafton Students can attend, the York County School Division Science & Engineering Fair (http://www.edline.net/pages/YCSD/ScienceEngineeringFair) and the Tidewater Science Congress (http://www.tidewatersciencecongress.org/). The dates change every year but the YCSD Science Fair is held typically early in January and the Tidewater Science Fair in March. You have to win either first, second, or third at the YCSD Science Fair in order to attend the next round at Old Dominion University. When you win the 1st prize at each category at the Tidewater Science Fair, you are eligible to attend the State Science Fair in April. And the next and final stage is the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF, https://student.societyforscience.org/intel-isef-2017). When you win the grand prize at the Tidewater Science Fair, you can obtain a ticket to the Intel ISEF in May. If you don’t like a shortcut, you can also grab a ticket to the Intel ISEF by winning the State Science Fair. How many wins did I mention so far? Don’t be intimidated. You will have a lot of fun even at regional level. The Google Science Fair (https://www.googlesciencefair.com) is another international science fair that draws thousands of  smart kids from all over the world every year but let’s focus on local baby science fairs this time.

A Bit More about the Science Fair

There are two divisions in each science fair. Junior Division is for middle school students and Senior Division for high school students. You can choose one of 17 categories for your project, this gives you a wide range to choose from. This year there were two new categories added,  Cellular & Molecular Biology (CM) and Environmental Management (EM).

Let’s talk about what makes these categories differ from the previous 15 categories. Cellular & Molecular Biology (CM) and Environmental Management (EM) are the two new additional categories. Be mindful. There are also Microbiology (MI) and Environmental Science (EV) categories. What is the difference? According to the Intel ISEF guideline, CM includes the research topics about understanding life and cellular processes specifically at the molecular level, while MI is about  a study of micro-organisms like bacteria and viruses and antibiotic substances. Also, EV targets the projects on more science-related environment research like water science, soil science, and water purification, while EM is more like engineering or management to solve environmental problems in the supply of water, the disposal of waste, or the control of pollution according to the guideline. Now there are a lot of alternative categories that you can choose from. For a complete list and full description for each catergory, please visit the Intel ISEF page,  https://student.societyforscience.org/intel-isef-categories-and-subcategories.

Let’s browse the seventeen categories of this year’s YCSD and Tidewater Science Fairs listed below. The numbers in the parenthesis of each category represent the number of the projects submitted to YCSD Science Fair this year. Traditionally, the most popular categories include Chemistry (32), Environmental Science (19), and Plant Sciences (19). On the other hand, the categories related to biology and mathematics always have a smaller competition than the other categories. This means that the odds of you winning will be increased, but be mindful. Less popularity doesn’t always mean less competition. In addition, finding you are the only one in your category doesn’t guarantee that you would return home with the 1st prize automatically. The science fair judges very professional. They don’t give away the prizes unless they are convinced that the works meet their expectations.

When your project is selected and advances to the next round, you will see a somewhat different atmosphere at the Tidewater Science Fair. You will be joined by a bunch of students from Governor’s School for Science and Technology (GSST), Ocean Lakes High School, and Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach. Ocean Lakes has a math and science magnet program and Princess Anne has a huge IB program. The computer science category becomes highly competitive usually at this round. Well, it is your interest that is the most important factor when you choose the category. Don’t be scared. Just follow your passion. Period.

Category List of YCSD Science Fair 2017

  1. Animal Science (AS) (3)
  2. Behavioral and Social Science (BE) (11)
  3. Biochemistry (BI) (5)
  4. Cellular & Molecular Biology (CM) (2)
  5. Chemistry (CH) (32)
  6. Computer Science (CS) (1)
  7. Earth & Planetary Science (EA) (4)
  8. Engineering: Electrical & Mechanical (EE) (7)
  9. Engineering: Materials & Bioengineering (EN) (6)
  10. Environmental Management (EM) (3)
  11. Energy & Transportation (ET) (9)
  12. Environmental Sciences (EV) (19)
  13. Mathematics (MA) (2)
  14. Medicine & Health Sciences (ME) (4)
  15. Microbiology (MI) (1)
  16. Physics and Astronomy (PH) (13)
  17. Plant Sciences (PS) (19)

Extra points and Prizes

Following the advice from the Chinese master, we have come to feel more comfortable with the science fair we like to conquer. We now understand what science fairs are and what topics they cover. Now, let’s turn our attention to ourselves to know better about how to get a true motivation.

This year I saw more Grafton students than any previous science fair for past couple of years. One of the reasons for such a positive outcome might be that our school science teachers put out a new bonus for those who attend the science fairs. You can enjoy extra quiz and test grades when you complete the paperwork and attend the YCSD Science Fair! Another extra test grade is given when you advance to Tidewater Science Fair. This extra grade policy applies to one science class only. No double dipping. This bonus policy is up to your science teacher, though. Therefore, you might want to talk to your science teacher to make sure how many extra points you can get by participating YCSD and Tidewater science fairs.

Is this not enough to make you move? Alright. There are many category prizes and special prizes along with cash prizes in every science fairs. According to a YCSD website,  this year’s YCSD Science Fair, awarded over $1,000, in cash prizes and special awards. At Tidewater Science Fair, I personally watched one super duper girl from Newport News take many cash prizes and leave the venue with her pocket full of checks for two years in a row. Cool.

When and How to Start?  

As mentioned earlier, you need to start to think about your science fair topics to meet the first deadline early in October. Most of the students give up their science fair dream, since they haven’t chosen their topic and fail to submit their research plan before the first deadline. Therefore, it is super important to take the first step of your brainstorming as early as possible.

Now we live in the world overloaded with great information every day. You can follow science and technology twitters to stay updated with an eye-opening view of science and technology communities. Here are some of my favorite twitter accounts I would like to recommend, for your information!

Favorite twitter accounts for science fair topics

  1. Popular Science @popSci
  2. Scientific American @sicam
  3. Nature @nature
  4. Science @scienmag
  5. Science News for Students @SNStudents

Once you find some interesting topics, you want to start to gather information by surfing through related websites and reading papers. Another important tip is to try to recruit members and mentors to build a team. At high school level, expectation becomes higher and higher these days. You can do more sophisticated research by contacting real researchers. Fortunately, we have a number of top-notch research institutions in our area, including NASA Langley Research Center (https://www.nasa.gov/langley), Jefferson Lab (https://www.jlab.org/), National Institute of Aerospace (www.nianet.org), Virginia Institute of Marine Science (http://www.vims.edu/), College of William and Mary (http://www.wm.edu/), Old Dominion University (http://www.odu.edu/), and Christopher Newport University (http://www.cnu.edu/). You can often find your mentors who are kind enough to help you come up with better ideas on your research topic and its direction. Don’t be shy!!


Congratulations. You just went through a quick, practical survival guide to enjoying the science fair. You learned how the science fairs work and how you can make yourself excited about them. While I was preparing for this survival guide, I found one interesting fact. The students from certain schools have been winning top-level prizes at the Intel ISEF every year. How come? One explanation is that those schools are surrounded by research-oriented universities where students can have excellent mentors and do research with them. Those schools also provide a regular class to support their science fair activities. Your situation is not bad at all. You have a strong support from school. You can find wonderful mentors at nearby research institutions and universities. All you need to do is just to switch on your brain and share your interest with your friends, teachers, and potential mentors. Good luck to all Grafton Clippers who will battle in science fairs to come! I hope you will be one of them!