2019 California Science and Engineering Fair

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Aircraft on display at the Californi ScienCenter
This plane is on display behind the California ScienCenter in Los Angeles. Several aircraft are located around the facility both inside and out, either perched on pillars or suspended by posts and wires.

It was sheer dumb luck that I was fortunate enough to attend this event, and of course, I had to go and make this into a working trip and plan a blog around it.  At first, my son wasn’t so pleased with that turn of events, but I bribed him with; takeout, dining out, and random adventures.  As far as I could tell the cost to get in is the cost of admittance to the venue.  However, I got in with one of the students participating, which is free (If you ignore the application fee for the student to participate), so I wasn’t paying attention to what the general public was doing.  I’m sorry.  Good thing to because travel was very far.

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The 67th California Science and Engineering Fair is sponsored by Northrop Grumman, Chevron,  Broadcom Foundation, and a host of other companiess and organizations.  It is where the best middle school and high school science fair projects in California go to compete for the chance to advance to the national and international contests (Broadcom Masters for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.  Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders is sponsored by…you guessed it, Intel. Regeneron Science Talent Search is only for students in their last year of secondary school, high school seniors). 

The California Science and Engineering Fair took place in The California Science Center located in Exposition Park in Los Angeles on April 29th and 30th.  Coming from a tiny town, I don’t get to see places like this often, neither does my son (*pauses in blogging and considers moving to a large city so child can be exposed to more science and technology*) so we were both pretty excited about getting a look around this facility.  For those of you who don’t know, the Space Shuttle Endeavor is located at the California Science Center.  What? ( *Insert huge-eyed emoji of shock and awe here.*)  Also located on the grounds but too large to fit inside of a building is the last External Tank, which is the large orangey-red thing attached to the shuttle when it takes off from the ground.

As a space head, I may have spent more time than I should have staring at the shuttle and the external tank than was strictly necessary.  One thing is for certain, if there hadn’t been barriers physically between me and those displays, I would have been all kinds of looking-with-my-hands and probably would have been escorted out.  Several of the Junior Division project categories were displayed in the shuttle room which was probably an incredible experience for many of the children participating in the fair.  The shuttle is suspended from the ceiling and just sort of hovers in the center of the room with the area directly beneath it cordoned off to prevent people from getting under the craft.

Science Fair project boards surround the Space Shuttle Endeavour at the 2019 California Science and Engineering Fair. Photo credit Michael Okawa.
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Over 900 students from around the state of California participated and competed for thousands of dollars of prize money.   Before being invited to apply for this fair, students first had to qualify through their County or local fair. There is a list of qualifying fairs on the CSEF website. So, what is the CSEF like? Crowded, busy, and full of excitement.  The kids are excited and nervous, the parents are excited and nervous.  And all around the rows and rows of tables with project display boards are the exhibits, taunting the kids because they are too busy preparing to talk to judges or answering questions from the public about their project to go and explore.  For those middle school and high school students who are nervous about participating, there was a presentation the day of registration about how to talk to judges.  I missed it, but one of the kind gentlemen at the registration table summed it up by stating that the child needs to show that they are excited and passionate about their project while being able to explain all the science behind their experiment and its findings.  Seems simple enough but the competition winners receive a lot of prize money for winning projects and the winning projects are complex and substantive. 

I loved attending this event.  It was simply delightful.  The location was great, and I could peruse the exhibits in the Science Center while traveling from one project board display area to the next.  The location was lovely.  During the judging while parents and visitors were banned from the display area, I spent a lot of time outside in the rose garden.  Discovered a few of my new favorite varieties.  Inside the fair I had thoroughly enjoyed looking at all the ingenious projects and learned a few new things in the process.

While there I picked up a few tips to take into consideration which might be useful when preparing for future science fairs. 

  1. Decide how far you want to go and how far you can go.  There are national and international science fairs which high school and middle school students can compete in.  If a student wants to compete on an international level, then that student needs to know what the standards are for those competitions and make sure the project they pick is capable of meeting those standards by the time the project is done.  They need to make sure that their parents/guardians and academic advisors/research advisors are aware of what they want.  Parents/guardians will need to plan financially for those trips out of their local area.  They will also need to pay for any supplies the child will need for their science fair project boards and experiments.  Academic/research advisors will need to sign off on digital project journals and sign off on other forms for the student’s applications to larger fairs. 
  2. Find out how to qualify.  The larger fairs require you to qualify for participation through smaller city, and county fairs.  Make sure you find out what fairs you need to win at first in order to go on to the next level.  Usually this information is available on the competition’s website.
  3. Find whatever the competition’s parameters are and fulfill them.  Make sure the subject matter is going to be fair worthy.  Is the project original research or merely a redo of commonly known information?  Is it relevant to a known problem faced by society or science which needs to be solved?  Did it require specialized equipment, controlled factors, is it completely reproducible by someone else if they followed all your procedures precisely, or bear other earmarks of regular scientific research?  If not, it won’t likely score very high with judges at the fair.  Even if you do the best research a judge has ever seen, it won’t get seen if you don’t follow the required parameters on the application to be accepted to compete.  And your award-winning research won’t win any awards if it isn’t presented according to their judging standards.
  4. Start early.  Like right now.  Science fair over in your neck of the woods and you/your student didn’t advance to the next level?  Start prepping for next year.  Get a project journal and start researching what to do a project on.  Determining what to research is as much of the process as the experimenting is. 
  5. Journal everything!  The project journal is an integral part of most science fairs.  If handwriting is an issue, then use a digital journal or transcribe it to a word processing program and bring the original and printed copies to the fair with you.  Don’t be afraid to write in the journal.  Put everything in it.  What the project is.  Why the project was chosen?  Everything single step to get to the finished product.  Every failure, every success, every result, every single measurement, graph, and revision should be jotted down.  It is an amazing journey and it will all have to be documented so that it can be shared, and the results proven to be reproducible. 
  6. Learn.  The project selected is too advanced?  Learn.  Take classes.  Get tutoring.  Find people who know about what you want to learn and work with them.  The whole point of a science fair project is to learn new things about your project, not to take someone else’s research and regurgitate it.
  7. Be passionate.  The more excited someone is about their project, the more likely that person is going to be to get other people excited about their project.  The more a project is talked about the more practice the student has presenting it to others and answering their questions.  More importantly, those different perspectives could show a student that their project is lacking in some aspect and they need to do more research or change the way that their project is presented.  The more questions from different perspectives the student must think about, will only be a benefit when it comes time to talk to judges at the fair.  This kind of practice can help keep shy science fair participants from seeming as if they didn’t legitimately do the project because they froze when the judges came around to interview them.
  8. Lastly, practice wearing appropriate clothes.  What?  Yes!  Look at what past fair winners were wearing in their photos and practice dressing appropriately.  Never worn a pair of dress shoes before?  Don’t know how to tie a tie?  Not comfortable in a dress/skirt/suit?  Afraid to stain clothes going out to eat?  Practice, practice, practice.  No body ever got comfortable at new things by putting them off until the last minute.
  9. Plan to have fun!  Some people traveled hundreds of miles to participate in the California Science and Engineering Fair.  For two days of non-stop frantic work.  Because that’s what presenting at a science fair is at its most basic.  It is work for those kids.  It is stress for the parents.  Yeah it is an incredible experience.  But it is terrifying, exhausting, and exhilarating all at once.  Take a camera to document memories.  Keep a journal/notebook and pen handy to take notes about what to be prepared for next time.  Research what restaurants to eat at beforehand and when in the schedule there will be time for breakfast and dinner.  Know where the gas stations are along the travel route so there is no frantically searching a strange area while fuel is dwindling, or bladders are filling.  Take in the local sites if there is time.  Reserve tickets in advance for paid activities.  Have a book to read or listen to on your travels. And understand that the two days of the fair are almost completely consumed with the fair.
  10. Plan to win.  But don’t expect to win. The time is short between the completing of one level of competition and the application deadline for the next.  If the intention of a participant is to advance to the next level, then anticipate that is what is going to happen and plan for it.  Have applications and their required documents for all fairs to be attended that season printed and completed or saved online and ready to submit prior to qualifying for that fair if possible.  These applications are long and can be complicated.  Don’t wait until the last minute to start, thinking that it is something which can be done in a few minutes. 
  11. Don’t be afraid to work on more than one project at once.  Some projects take weeks, some take months, some take years, it’s okay to have more than one research project going at a time.  Some fairs allow for new research added onto the same project year after year as long as it is advancing the knowledge gained from said research and advancing the project but make sure it is going to meet the competition requirements before you put time into any research project.

What do you think?  Good Ideas? Or not?  Let me know your opinion in the comments.

Want to read more about the trip? Read about our visit to Shabuya. To see more photos from my travels visit my Instagram.

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Photo of the plane behind the California Science Center viewed through the trees bordering the Exposition Park Rose Garden.

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