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2020 March 15

Virtual science fair

Yesterday was the Santa Cruz County Science and Engineering Fair, which had been scheduled to take place at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville.

But on Monday March 9, 5 days before the fair, the entire thing was changed from an in-person event to a virtual event.  Students with projects were asked to upload a report, a video, a picture of their poster, and a picture of their lab notebook.  These were supposed to be uploaded by 7pm Friday night (giving the students rather little time to prepare).

I was the lead judge for the high-school projects, of which we had very few this year—only twelve projects had originally been submitted, and on Friday night only nine had submitted the additional material.  I watched the videos and read all the reports Friday night, so that I could do phone interviews with the students on Saturday. I also scheduled all the phone interviews for the five judges in 15-minute slots and sent e-mail to the judges arranging video conferences before and after the interview period.

The morning meeting was tried first with Google Hangouts, which failed—I could not hear any of the other judges, though they could hear me and each other.  The video quality was also poor.  I switched the meeting to Zoom (using the UCSC license) and that worked much better, though one of the judges never signed in and did not respond to email.  The judges spent most of their morning watching videos and reading reports, with interviewing starting at 11:30 a.m.

After interviewing had already started, two more projects were added, requiring me to change everybody’s interview schedules on our shared Google spreadsheet (which I messed up somewhat, as I was frantically typing in changes between phone calls).  We did not get a chance to see those videos or read the reports until after the interviewing was over, which really reduced how much we could get out of the phone interviews.

After the interviews, we had another Zoom meeting, with all the judges this time (though the one who missed the morning meeting was also a half-hour late for the afternoon one—not someone I would want to work with on a regular basis).  We quickly reached consensus on our top two projects (to send to ISEF), though it took longer to figure out the third and to decide which of the projects were good enough to advance to state-level competition (assuming that state actually does do something this year).  For the first time that I can remember, I had to urge judges to allow more projects to go forward—in previous years I’ve been having to try to hold the standards high enough that weak high-school projects were not blocking better middle-school projects from going (we have a quota of how many projects we can send, but it is not split between high-school and middle-school divisions).

The process was not as much fun as the in-person event, and there was no sharing with the public (which I see as an important part of science fair), but it went better than I expected given that we were using new software for the first time and switching to an online and phone process at the last moment.

One thing I liked was having the full reports and videos available the night before—I think that we should insist on that in future, even if we have in-person science fairs.  One thing I hated was having last-minute additions to the list—we should be stricter about deadlines in future (we had to be lenient this year, because of the last-minute addition to the requirements).  If administrators want to have a grace period, we can make the deadline for report and video submissions be Wednesday night, with an unadvertized grace period to Friday noon, but absolutely no submissions accepted after that.  We obviously couldn’t do that this year, as students weren’t even informed of the need for videos and reports until Monday.

Phone interviews are not as good as in-person ones, but the video recordings of the students’ spiels was better than having the students give the same spiel 5 times. Having ten-minute slots for the phone interviews was a little tight—fifteen-minute slots, as I had originally scheduled, would have been about right.

The zoom meeting for the judges worked as well as in-person meetings have done in the past, though that might have been because we had fewer judges (and fewer projects) than in previous years.  One thing I missed was running into old friends, many of whom I only see once a year at the science-fair judging.  I also missed being able to browse the posters in other divisions and categories.  There are usually a few good high-school projects, but a lot of times the top middle-school ones are more interesting, just because there are a lot more middle-schoolers participating. (There are about 13,000 high-school students in the county [], so having only 11 high-school projects is really rather embarrassing.)

Overall, I’d say that from my perspective this science fair was a successful one, despite the last-minute changes forced by the COVID-19 precautions.  I’d be curious to know how well the format worked for the middle schoolers.


  1. As you know, I was lead judge for Environmental Science/Management. I guess my experience was a little different than yours. In this time of everything being canceled and a general feeling of doom and gloom, I think my crew of students and judges felt immense inspiration. We had some great phone interviews (I interviewed one student who paused on the side of a ski slope to answer questions about his project), really nice connection between the judges… and some pretty good projects. Some of the videos were quite entertaining and/or informative. I like the elementary and middle school projects — there’s generally good enthusiasm in those cohorts. It was insanely difficult to coordinate everything (we had about 25 projects), but it felt so good that our county was able to pull this off (many others just canceled). I was really proud to be a part of it!

    Comment by whatisron — 2020 March 15 @ 16:40 | Reply

    • I am by nature a pessimist, and I thought that zfairs was going to be rough and the virtual science fair a disaster. I was pleasantly surprised that neither of these predictions turned out out to be correct. Having the videos ahead of time made judging easier than usual, and I’m going to urge that that become a permanent part of the science fair.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2020 March 15 @ 17:24 | Reply

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