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From a Judge's Perspective: Tips for a Successful Scientific Interview

By Sandra Slutz

If you've made it to one of the top science competitions, congratulations! That is no easy feat. After all of your hard work, you want to make a good impression on the judges and convey your research well. The following information will give you an idea of what the competition is like from a judge's perspective, what criteria are used to decide the winners, and how to make the most of your limited time with a judge. For additional advice on how to impress the judges, read veteran science fair student Amber Hess' Judging Tips for Top Science Competitions.

Judges' Decision-making Criteria

No two judges will approach your science project from the same perspective. They come from different personal and professional backgrounds, they might or might not have judged at this type of competition before, and they might be more or less informed about your topic. Having said that, all of the judges will be trying to determine the same general thing: your ability to independently conduct and communicate original, meaningful science or engineering research. Table 1, below, lists the seven factors judges usually use to make their judging decisions. The weight awarded to each factor varies depending on both the specific science competition and on the individual judge.

Factors judges use to make their decisionWhat the judges are trying to determineExamples of questions a judge might ask during an interview
Creativity / originalityIs this work novel? Why did you choose this topic and how did you settle on your approach to the problem?
Scientific thought / engineering process Did the student understand the scientific/engineering method and apply it appropriately? Can you walk me through how and why you decided on this experimental/engineering design?
Background information / thoroughness Does the student understand what was done previously in the field? How does your approach to the question differ from people's previous approaches?
Skill / independence Who designed and carried out the bulk of the work? What was the most surprising experimental/engineering challenge you faced during this science project? How did you overcome it?
Thoroughness Is the completed work sufficient to move the field forward? What were your goals with this science project and how would you evaluate where you are in respect to those goals?
Clarity Can the student clearly and easily discuss all aspects of his or her project? During an interview, judges might want to make sure that a student can think and speak well when thrown a curve. If your tests had shown XYZ instead, what would you have done? Why?
Teamwork (only applicable for team projects) Was each member of the team fully involved? Does each member, regardless of his or her specific experimental role, understand all aspects of the science project? The great thing about working together is the synergy between people. What would you say was the most important skill or idea each of you had during the course of this science project?
Table 1. The seven factors listed above are usually the most important criteria for success at a top science competition.

The Do's and Don'ts of Judging Interviews

Exactly what happens during judging varies from competition to competition. You should carefully review the procedures outlined on the website of the competition(s) you're entering. However, most of the top competitions rely on face-to-face judging interviews in order to make the final determinations. These interviews usually have a time cap. You might have less than 15 minutes to convey all of the information you want during an interview. In addition to explaining all the science, you'll want to leave judges with the impression that you were courteous, confident, comfortable, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and engaging. Here are some tips for doing just that:

  • Make sure your display board (if it's allowed in the competition) conveys information efficiently. Depending on how the fair is set up, and on judges' individual schedules, judges might or might not have had time to preview the displays. Regardless, the point of the board is to convey as much information as quickly as possible. A well-put-together display board is an advantage, allowing you to get the basic description of your science project across quickly so that the judges can focus on asking you questions to evaluate what you did and how much you know.
  • Get started immediately. Introduce yourself and ask the judge whether he or she would like you to start describing your work. If he or she says yes, provide a good overview of your project, but be prepared to stop and answer questions at any time.
  • Don't ignore a question. If you're in the middle of a speech and a judge asks you a question, immediately switch to trying to answer it. Interviews are time-limited and the judge is trying to ascertain, within those time constraints, whether or not you meet all seven of the aforementioned judging criteria.
  • Practice what you have to say about your science project. It is very important to relay information confidently and succinctly, but remember that a judge wants more than just a canned speech. If a judge asks you a question, he or she wants you to abandon your prepared speech and have an intelligent (but still succinct!) discussion. If you get too flustered when you're forced to deviate from your practiced project explanation, the judges will wonder if you truly understand what you're saying or if you're just repeating someone else's explanations. So practice an explanation of your science project, and practice being interrupted to answer questions.
  • Practice your tone. Every interview should have a professional but conversational tone.
  • Don't let silence reign. If a judge appears to be out of questions, then you should keep the conversation going and create opportunities to convey how much you know about your science project. Some things you can do include: pointing out and explaining surprising data points, talking about what you'd do next with your data, discussing the wider implications of your research.
  • Talk about the process and not just the product. For a judge to evaluate your thought process and logic, it is important for him or her to understand not only your results, but also how you got there. Describe how and why you arrived at that particular experimental setup or product design. If preliminary data encouraged you to re-design your science project, explain how that evolved.

My Firsthand Judging Experience at the 2010 Intel ISEF

My name is Sandra Slutz, a staff scientist at Science Buddies, and I had the opportunity to be a Grand Awards judge in the Animal Sciences Division at the 2010 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). There were 25 of us judging in that particular division. All of us had PhD's and research experience related in some way to animal sciences, but our current occupations were pretty diverse, including pure researchers, science educators at all levels (elementary through graduate school), veterinarians, and researchers at biotechnology companies. Our goal was to judge and rank the 51 animal science projects into 1st through 4th place Grand Award winners. The exact number of 1st through 4th Grand Awards for each division at Intel ISEF changes annually, depending on the number of science projects entered in the division. In each division, the top 25 percent of projects will take home a Grand Award. This means that there may be multiple 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th place Grand Awards for each division. The more science projects in the division, the more Grand Awards, but your odds of winning a Grand Award are equal in all science divisions, regardless of how many competitors there are.

Intel ISEF competitors have a total of 18 possible interview slots spread throughout the morning and afternoon of a single day. In our division, each competitor had a total of 5–6 of their interview slots filled with appointments with Grand Award judges. The Grand Award judges had approximately 15 of their 18 interview slots filled. (Yes, if you're doing the math, that doesn't work out quite right, but that is because the Grand Award judges also had team projects to interview, evaluate, and rank separately for prizes. Starting in 2011, the team projects will be judged alongside the individual projects and be eligible for the same pool of Grand Awards.) After receiving our judging schedules, we had approximately 3 hours to preview all 15 of the display boards for the science projects on our schedule. That isn't a lot of time per project, so you can see how crucial it is to have a well-organized and easy-to-read display board! For more advice about creating a strong display board, see the Science Buddies articles about Data Presentation Tips and Big Display Boards for Top Science Competitions.

On judging day, I found that although the interview sessions were 15 minutes long, I spent only 12–14 minutes at each science project. There were very few breaks between the interviews, so I needed to conduct the interview, make my assessment, score the project (see the Judging Criteria section above for an involved discussion of the factors used to judge projects), hand in my score, and be at the next display board before the beginning of the next interview session. Twelve minutes isn't a lot of time to impress a judge, so you have to be well prepared!

At the end of all the interview sessions, the Intel ISEF competitors took a break while the division judges conferred. The goal is to start picking out the best projects. The challenging part for the judges was that we hadn't all seen all the projects. In my case, we each saw approximately 1 out of every 5 science projects. We agreed to create a list where we each named the absolute best project that we'd judged that day. In the end, we had approximately 10 projects, each of which was what one or more judges considered the "best." And then the discussions began. Judges summarized the projects and described why "this one" or "that one" should be the top award winner. Other judges who had seen the projects added their opinions, either agreeing or disagreeing. After much back-and-forth debate, we collectively determined which projects needed additional opinions and sent out groups of judges to the top contenders once the students had returned from their break. The goal was to conduct either additional interviews, or more focused interviews if either a technical question or a question about the student's qualifications in one of the judging criteria (criteria are discussed in the section above) had arisen.

When the final judging period was over, the judges reconvened and continued to debate the comparative merits of each science project and selected the top ones. Believe me, with so many excellent projects it wasn't an easy feat! One thing is very clear, no one project will be every judge's favorite. But you do want as many judges as possible to be favorably impressed with your work. And to win top honors, you'll need to "wow" at least one judge who will champion you when the judges are debating the merits of different finalists.