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Benjamin Pollack's Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology Blog

by Benjamin Pollack

Introduction

The following article recounts my experience competing in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology. I've also included information and helpful hints for developing your own research project to enter the Siemens Competition.

I would like to start by encouraging any individual interested in math, science, or engineering to enter the Siemens Competition. The experiences and friendships gained through the entire competition process have been both extraordinary and unforgettable.

Possibly one of the most exciting aspects of being a researcher (besides making great discoveries) is being able to share your passion about science and math with others. When judges who are often the leaders in their respective fields appreciate your work, there is a great sense of accomplishment in knowing that you may have made a difference in how they conduct research or even how they view their field.

I have participated in the Siemens Competition two years in a row and both the number of entries and level of complexity has increased greatly. But don't be discouraged, I have learned through my experience that hard work does pay off.

How to get started?

The Siemens Competition requires that you complete a research project. The facilities students use to conduct their research varies. The most common locations are formal research institutions (i.e. universities, research labs, etc.), their schools, at their home, or any combination of the above. Either at the conclusion of the research study or when you feel you have gathered enough data to make sound conclusions, it is time to write the research paper.

What are they looking for in the research paper?

When you write your research paper, it is important to make your findings clear to the reader so they can appreciate the purpose and significance of your research. Your research can easily get lost in a paper if you don't describe why it is important and have many ways to support it. There are seven key elements to a good paper:
  1. Abstract – this is the summary of your research. The abstract should introduce the topic of your paper to the reader, tell them what you did, and include your findings. Abstracts are usually short. No more than half a page, single spaced.
  2. Introduction/Background Information - This is where you want to introduce your research topic to the reader. For instance, if you are doing an evolutionary project using Drosophila, you would want to discuss what Drosophila are and discuss evolution. You may also want to discuss your hypothesis as it relates to the background research.
  3. Methodology/Procedure – This section should discuss how you conducted your research; it should NOT be in list format or in a flow chart. Try to make this section brief while covering the major points. Something you want to keep in mind is that this section serves two purposes: it shows the reader that you may have developed a new method and it provides the instructions that allow your research to be reproduced by someone else. Science is often validated by its repeatability.
  4. Results – This is where you want to include graphs and charts about your research. This section should be very factual. Sometimes researchers put their findings in an appendix in the back of the paper. Just remember to stay within the 20-page limit.
  5. Discussion – This is where you want to discuss your findings. You should talk about why it is important, its implications, and why people should care about your work.
  6. Conclusions – Like the abstract, this section should be short. It should highlight your key findings. Think of this section as a summary of your results and discussion.
  7. Bibliography/Works Cited Page – Remember to include a detailed bibliography.

    A works cited page lists all of the sources mentioned in a paper, while a bibliography lists all of the sources you used in writing your paper; this includes information gathered for background information. Throughout your paper, include citations whenever you are using information that you got from an outside source.

Note: The Siemens Competition has a 20-page limit for student entries. Just because there is a 20-page limit, doesn't mean that you have to write 20 pages. The average, based on my experience, is 15-20 pages. Make sure that you convey all of the important details in a concise manner. If you start writing to fill pages, the judges will most likely notice your intent; plus, the quality of your paper will most likely suffer.

What's the selection process?

Once all of the entries have been submitted (the deadline is usually the first week in October), the judges at the Siemens Foundation go to work reading all of the entries.

Once all of the papers have been read, 300 students are named semi-finalists. One of my favorite aspects of the competition (and everyone else's for that matter) is that they announce the winners very quickly. The semi-finalists are usually announced by the end of October (usually on a Thursday or Friday). Winners are announced on the website. The next week, there is a huge article in USA Today listing all of the semi-finalists by school and state. They always have a great headline.

A few weeks later, the regional finalists are announced. There are 6 regions and there are five individual winners and five team winners from each region. Regional winners are flown (depending on location) to the respective regional university. Regional finalists create a 12-minute PowerPoint presentation and a presentation display board. The judging day includes a 12-minute oral presentation with your PowerPoint as an aid. Immediately following your presentation, you are escorted by the judges to a private room where you (if you're on a team, then you and your partner) are questioned about different aspects of your research.

In a reception later that day, regional winners are announced. One team and one individual move on to the national competition. Note: Teams compete with teams and individuals compete with individuals.

This year, the National competition was held at New York University (NYU) (Please see below for my experience at the National Competition). At the national competition, you are expected to deliver a 10-minute presentation, followed by a private 10-minute question-and-answer session with the judges.

My Experience at the Siemens Competition

Last year I entered the Siemens Competition as a junior. My partner, Heather Casper, and I conducted research involving Dioscorea species and the enzyme Carbonic anhydrase at Stony Brook University under the mentorship of Dr. Geeta. With this research, we were named semi-finalists in the 2004-2005 competition.

I again entered this year's competition as a team. My research partner's name is Abhinav Khanna. I found it quite beneficial throughout the competition process to have a research partner who went to the same school as I did. However, I did meet people at the national competition who had partners on the other end of the country.

Our research dealt with the mating patterns in Drosophila melanogaster and Drosophila biarmipes. We studied the mating patterns of Drosophila melanogaster between two different geographic locations, mainland U.S. and the Bahamas. We wanted to determine if there was a nonrandom mating preference among the populations. Another aspect of our research was in studying female preference for the wing spot of D. biarmipes.

The results of our research suggest a greater understanding of how traits evolve in almost any organism.

We entered the competition to meet the October 3rd, deadline. Just as a reminder, you need to send entries to Iselin, NJ, so plan to have them at the processing facility at that time. The deadline is a "delivered by" not a "postmarked by" date.

On October 21st, the semi-finalists were announced on the Siemens Foundation website. We were both so excited that all of our hard work had paid off. There is such a sense of accomplishment when you see how others—in this case, judges—appreciate the work you do.

Two weeks later, I checked the website again to see if Abhinav and I had made it to the regional finals, and to our amazement, we did! We knew that our research was pretty amazing in its own right but we never thought we would make it this far. Words can't describe the excitement that we both felt at that time.

We were later told by a representative on behalf of the Siemens Foundation that we would present our research at the Middle States Regional affiliated university, Carnegie Mellon University. The preparation for the regional competition took many hours of work. I remember Abhinav and I staying late at school almost every day from the time we heard about our status in the competition to the time the plane left. We were working on the four components of the presentation: PowerPoint, display board, oral presentation, and preparing ourselves for the possible questions the judges may ask us in the question-and-answer session. When we weren't at school, we were at the lab getting feedback from our mentor and other members of the lab.

When it came time to leave for the competition, we felt ready.

Note: When traveling to a science competition and you need to bring your poster, remember that it is more valuable than your luggage. Never let it out of your sight!

After checking in at the hotel, we were invited to have dinner in a nearby hotel. What a great break from a full day of traveling. What was supposed to be "eat whenever you like" turned out to be a great dinner with many of the finalists. We all happened to have dinner at the same time. It was one of many great opportunities to socialize with the other finalists.

After a day to set up the posters and do a "sound check", came Presentation Day. We were chosen to present first after a lottery held the night before. After we were introduced by the lead judge, we proceeded to the front of the room. The presentation went really well in our opinions. We were amazed that we actually came in under the allotted time. In our practice sessions, we were cutting it close.

Regardless of how many judges or how intimidating the audience is, always remain calm and collected when presenting. A few pointers I have picked up over the past few years is to be wary of such words as "like" or "ummmmmmmmm......." Also, unless you are a mathematician, never say you proved your research. A better way of saying that is that your findings suggest something. While everyone at the competition had their own style for presenting, it is important to remember that you want the audience to first and foremost focus on your presentation. If you use a laser pointer, hold it with two hands to avoid what I call the "fly on the wall".

As for the question-and-answer session the judges were really nice and asked questions that truly pertained to the research. Questions were derived from our paper and presentation and were posed to test the depth of our knowledge. The judges also used this time to clarify any questions they had while reading the paper.

That night, there was a reception at the Heinz Museum. After a chance to tour the museum and have a great dinner, the award ceremony began. The best way to describe this moment would probably be the feeling a singer has right before the Grammy's are announced. The envelope was opened, and the announcer said we were the Middle States Regional winner!! We still couldn't believe it. Before we could comprehend what just happened, we were quickly taken to the lobby where we recorded an interview with CBS and 880 Radio (New York Station).

We had about a month to prepare for the National Competition at NYU. We updated our presentation a little, and modified our display board. A lesson I learned this year is that it is never bad to ask for advice.

For the most part, follow the rule, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" (unless you see a typo or a change that would make the presentation even better).

To our amazement, our school had secretly planned a pep rally for us in the lobby of the building. We were later told that there were over 200 students in the lobby. The officials from the Siemens Foundation were so excited to hear this as their goal is for "American high schools to have as many trophies for math and science as there are for sports". It was so amazing to see a school take as much pride in science as in athletics.

The National Competition had finally arrived. When we arrived in the city, we went to the Darwin exhibit (it was particularly interesting to my partner and I as our research focused on Darwin's theory of evolution) at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. After viewing the exhibit, we returned to the Embassy Suites hotel in downtown NY to meet the other finalists.

At the hotel, there was a welcoming committee from the Siemens Foundation. Abi and I had met most of these people at the regional fair, yet it was still exciting to see so many familiar faces. In a way, it was similar to a family reunion.

The next day we had breakfast at Chelsea Piers overlooking the water. Talk about a Kodak® moment!!!

Following breakfast was a photo shoot that would later appear in USA Today. We felt like stars.

Besides the photo shoot, there was a huge media presence. Make sure to bring your smile. Some of the media outlets, my partner and I were featured on include: National Public Radio (NPR), CBS, NBC, ABC, Satellite Sisters (Nationally Syndicated Radio Show), CBS Radio, 1010 Wins Radio (New York Station), New York Times, New York Post, and The Daily News, just to name a few.

Later that afternoon, the finalists and the director of the Siemens Foundation went bowling and golfing (at a driving range), all at Chelsea Piers (so much fun).

Later that night, the Siemens Foundation held a concert for all the finalists and their families, featuring distinguished past winners of the competition. This was by far some of the greatest music I have ever heard. The students were nationally recognized for their music and came from such universities as Harvard and MIT—very impressive.

The next day, December 3rd 2005, was display board setup and sound check for the oral presentation. This process took most of the day so it was a great chance to review literature and go over our PowerPoint. Later that night, the Siemens Foundation had a public viewing of the different projects. The public was able to ask the finalists questions about their research. As with the regional fair, it was great to see others enthused about the work you have done.

After dinner, the Siemens Foundation had a "HUGE" surprise. They had arranged for the Jumbotron (the large television screens) in Times Square to feature all of the finalists' faces and names for 15 minutes. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

December 4th was judging day. My research partner and I had been chosen to present first again, as determined by a lottery the night before. Very weird, yet exciting.

Our presentation at NYU seemed so much more relaxed than at the regional fair. My advice for presenting is pretty much the same as the regional fair; however, at the national competition, the screen behind you and the audience is much larger. Don't be intimidated by this change.

When the presentation was over, we had a 10-minute question-and-answer session with the judges. While they asked more difficult, or rather, more-specific questions than the regional competition, they had the same pleasant and appreciative attitude towards our research. The judges again wanted to see the depth of our knowledge on the subject area, so they asked questions specific to our research. For example: What are micro satellites? What are isofemale lines?

That night we had a Black Tie dinner at the New York Hall of Science with Siemens executives. The CEO of the Logistics division was at my table, along with a member of the Museum of Natural History.


ISEF 2005

Science Buddies Mentor Benjamin Pollack (far left, top row), earned a $50,000 team scholarship at the Siemens Competition National Finals in December 2005. Six individuals and six teams advanced to the finals at New York University after competing against over 1,000 students across the country.

The next morning, December 5th, was the award ceremony. Press from every major news outlet was there, along with Satellite hookups for interviews after the ceremony. The winners were announced by Peter von Siemens (descendent of the founder of Siemens) from 6th place to 1st place, with the team category going first. My partner and I came in 2nd place, we couldn't believe it. If words could not describe how excited we were at the regional competition, you can only imagine how excited we were when the national results were announced.

Following the ceremony, the reporters interviewed all of us. We kept moving from one interview to another so quickly because the reporters wanted to file the results as soon as possible, so it became difficult to keep track of who was asking what questions. My research partner and I truly felt like stars. I think the pinnacle of the interviews was a satellite interview with a local television station. The four finalists from Long Island (including myself) were equipped with microphones and earpieces. We felt like news anchors!

I hope sharing my experience has given you some insight into how the competition process works and what it takes to compete. I urge you to conduct research and compete in science competitions as it may be one of the most rewarding things you ever do. Research competitions are rewarding because they show you that hard work DOES pay off. There is no greater feeling than having your hard work showcased for others to see. Remember, when it comes to entering science competitions, they are competitions, not contests. What's the difference? Well, competitions require hard work and determination. The end product of competitions is a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. However, a contest for the most part requires "luck." There is usually very little work that goes into a contest. The best examples I can provide are the lottery or a game of Bingo. Although you may feel happy that you won, the sense of satisfaction in knowing that your hard work paid off doesn't compare.

Overall, the entire Siemens competition process was amazing. I met countless individuals, not only at the competition, but since then, who share a passion for science and research. The great aspect of the Siemens competition is that if you are interested in another facet of research besides science, the Siemens competition allows you to enter projects in technology or mathematics.

One of the greatest lessons I gained from this competition was how to better communicate my findings in a more concise and effective way. The most exciting moment was being on stage giving my presentation with my partner and having it broadcast all over the world!

A copy of all the national presentations can be found online at: http://www.mapdigital.com/events/siemens/swc05/students/index.html

I strongly encourage you to enter the Siemens Competition. It is an amazing experience that provides many opportunities.


Benjamin Pollack Benjamin Pollack was a Mentor in the Science Buddies Online Mentoring Program for two years. In addition to being named 2nd Place National Finalist for teams in the 2005-2006 Siemens Competition, he has also won Third Place and Fourth Place Grand Awards at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), as well as a special award from the Society of Technical Communication. Benjamin is now attending the University of Rochester.