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Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Mon Mar 17, 2008 12:44 am
by skatj
Hi, I have an engineering project which is a little different from the norm so I have a few questions on how to do my presentation/presentation materials.

1. Should I have some sort of quantitative analysis of my project? I have nothing to graph or chart like a traditional science fair project. (I built an autopilot computer). Is this acceptable or a huge disadvantage? The only analysis I can do is that it met my original design criteria, but these design criteria were not really numerical, but more like "features" (i.e., it has the ability to navigate autonomously in two dimensions, has real-time video feed, and has a manual override pilot).

2. The Science Buddies page on engineering & programming tips says 'redesign and retest' instead of experimental trials. But during the course of my project, it either worked or didn't work. If I wired a circuit wrong, or didn't supply enough power to a component, then it didn't really mean a redesign, just fixing a simple mistake. Same thing with the programming. Most of my "redesigns" were just fixing stupid errors like using the wrong type of slash. I do have some elements of redesign, but it is so choppy and irregular that it wouldn't really fit on a polished poster board. I do have it in my lab notebook, however. Any suggestions on what to do about this?

3. What should I 'conclude' about my project? The only thing I can say is that it meets my design criteria.

4. This project is a prototype, meaning the autopilot is ultimately intended to be adapted for an actual model aircraft, but this year I have only prototyped the system on the ground as a safety measure and as a testing platform. How much should I mention it's future use, even if I did not do any work in regards to it?

5. What kinds of questions should I expect for an engineering project?

And lastly, how does the interviewing actually work. Do a panel of judges go table to table and ask questions? Or do they call you in and they interview you one on one?

Thanks, I'm so nervous! My state fair's on April 1st. Hopefully my hard work will pay off. :D

Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Wed Mar 19, 2008 12:09 pm
by tdaly

The questions that you are asking are important; there is often a lot of confusion about how an engineering project should be written up/displayed at a science fair. The most important thing to realize is that you did NOT do a science project. You did an engineering project. (Lots of people call engineering projects science projects, but they are not!) An engineering project is definitely a science FAIR project, but it is not a science project. And since it is not a science project, it must be handled very differently.

The Science Buddies resource on engineering projects is very helpful. In addition, here are a couple of other resources you might find useful:

http://synopsys.championship.googlepage ... ngprojects

http://synopsys.championship.googlepage ... nworkshop2

Both of these resources were put together by teachers who have had students go to ISEF with engineering projects and win prizes.

To address your specific questions,

1. The most important thing is that you met your design criteria. Your criteria may not have been quantitative (e.g. has manual override pilot), but some of them may have been (e.g. consumes less than 10 watts of power). For those design criteria that were quantitative, you should have numerical evidence supporting your claim that you met your design criteria (e.g. readings from a multi-meter). If your criteria are not quantitative, you should make sure that you have concrete evidence that you met your criteria (e.g. a demonstration that you computer can successfully navigate in two dimensions. If you can't physically demonstrate this during judging, a video of the computer performing the task would be of immense value). Whatever your criteria are, you need to provide concrete evidence that your design criteria were met--this might be pictures, numbers, videos, or demonstrations. As long as you can provide convincing evidence that your design criteria were met, it does not matter if those criteria were quantitative.

2. The process you have described is precisely what "redesign and retest" means. Something didn't work the way you had it put together, you realized that, and then you fixed the problem--you redesigned. Fixing "stupid errors" (most of which, in the eyes of judges, are not stupid but simply part of the engineering process) is precisely what the redesign and retest process is about. The most important thing you can do on your board is to tell a story. I would recommend having the initial designs that you worked from on your board, and the final designs on your board. In between, you should have a series of pictures, diagrams, and text that show how you progressed from the initial design to the final product. This includes fixing problems, adjusting components and amounts, and all sorts of other things that you DID. Obviously, you can’t put all of this on your board, so you will pick the highlights and put that on your board so that your board has a sense of flow and development. Everything, however, should be in your notebook!

3 and 4. This is the main point—you met your design criteria! What does this mean? How will your device fill a need? Or improve something that already exists? It’s great that you met your design criteria, but why should I care? You should make it as clear as possible why I should care about the product you’ve made. If it’s a prototype, wonderful! What will it take to make it fully functional and (dare I say) marketable? “Selling” your product is a very real part of the judging process. You need to do research to find out what needs your product will fill, how it will fill those needs, how much your product will cost, and as much other information as possible! By all means mention its future use. Of course you can’t build a completely operation instrument—you probably don’t have the time or the money. But no one will fund a prototype that they aren’t sure will be able to be fully functional and accomplish its purposes.

Here are some judging criteria from an ISEF regional fair: Some of them apply, some of them don’t.
Engineering Goals (For Engineering projects)
1. Does the project have a clear objective?
2. Is the objective relevant to the potential user's needs?
3. Is the solution
(a) workable?
(b) acceptable to the potential user?
(c) economically feasible? Unworkable solutions might seem interesting but are not practical. Solutions that will be rejected or ignored are not valuable. A solution so expensive it cannot be utilized is not valuable.
4. Could the solution be utilized successfully in design or construction of some end product?
5. Is the solution a significant improvement over previous alternatives?
6. Has the solution been tested for performance under the conditions of use? (Testing might prove difficult, but should be considered.)
Creative Ability
1. Does the project show creativity and originality in
(a) the question asked?
(b) the approach to solving the problem?
(d) the interpretation of the data?
(f) the construction or design of new equipment?
2. An original idea for a project would show greater creativity than a suggested project from a textbook. Obviously no project is creative and original in every aspect. Remember that a creative and original project for high school students is different from that of professionals. Conversely, some projects may contain elements that seem original; the materials may have come from new curricula in textbooks or laboratory manuals unfamiliar to judges.
3. Also consider how much help a student received. A student's or team's approach to solving a problem may seem original, but may have come from a scientist's or engineer's suggestions. If a student received help on a project, any credit for creative ability and originality should reflect the student's own contributions. This should become clear through careful questioning.
4. Creative research should support an investigation and help answer a question in an original way. The assembly of a kit would not be creative unless an unusual approach was taken. Collections should not be considered creative unless they are used to support an investigation, and to help answer a question in an original way.
5. A creative contribution promotes an efficient and reliable way to solve a problem. When judging, make sure to distinguish between gadgeteering and genuine creativity.
1. Was the purpose carried out to completion within the scope of the original intent?
2. How completely was the problem covered?
3. Are the conclusions based on a single experiment, or are there replications?
4. How complete are the project notes?
5. Is the student/team aware of other approaches or theories?
6. How much time did the student/team spend on the project?
7. Is the student/team familiar with scientific literature in the field?
1. Does the student/team have the skills required to do all the work necessary to obtain the data that support the project? Laboratory skills? Computational skills? Observational skills? Design skills?
2. Where was the project done? (i.e., home, school laboratory, university laboratory) Did the student or team receive assistance from parents, teachers, scientists, or engineers?
3. Was the project done under adult supervision, or did the student/team work largely alone?
4. Where did the equipment come from? Was it built independently by the student or team? Was it obtained on loan? Was it part of a laboratory where the student or team worked?
1. How clearly can the student discuss the project and explain the project's purpose, procedure, and conclusions? Make allowances for nervousness. Watch out for memorized speeches that reflect little understanding of the principles.
2. Does the written material reflect the student's or team's understanding of the research? (Take outside help into account.)
3. Are the important phases of the project presented in an orderly manner?
4. How clearly are the data presented?
Here is ISEF judging criteria:

The precise details of how judging works varies from fair to fair; contact your regional fair for details on how the mechanics of the process will work in your specific case.

Let me know if we can be of more help!

Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Wed Mar 19, 2008 12:50 pm
by skatj
Thanks Terik!

It is hard to demonstrate (limited space and no GPS reception inside the fair), but I can take screenshots of my computer simulations I guess (Just a scrolling screen of variable values as the algorithm does calculations), and demonstrate some manual pilot capability by operating the camera.

Actually, would just printing out my source code (properly commented) be proof enough of my autopilot's functionality?

Thanks again, your post was very very helpful.

Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Fri Mar 21, 2008 7:38 pm
by tdaly

It sounds like your making good progress. I hope things continue to go well.

Just printing out your source code wouldn't really show functionality. I could put a bunch of junk code together and print it out; it would look just like functional code unless someone started looking closely at, which most judges aren't liable to do unless they are programmers and have a bunch of time on their hands - not likely. You should have your code in your notebook and at your display because some judge may want to look at it, but code alone is not enough. You're welcome to put an annotated version of your code on display, but by itself, it is not really enough. Screen shots of scrolling numbers aren't very interesting, but may be beneficial.

The real issue I see is that your board needs to tell a story; you're going to be having judges of all different kinds looking at your board and people who aren't necessarily computer programmers need to be able to understand what you did, how you did it, and why it matters without having you at the board. It's a challenge!

Showing manual piloting capability would probably be good, but the most important thing (from what I can tell) is the automatic piloting. Is there anyway you can get some sort of visual showing autopilot capability. Video? Photos? Graphs? Since I don't know your project very well, I can't really say what the best way to do this is, but think about someway to visually show the autopilot working.

I'm sorry I can't be of more specific help in figuring out how to show this, but I think the two most important things are (1) your board needs to tell a story that is technical enough so that subject area experts can appreciate the intricacies of your project but that is simple enough to someone who is not an expert can appreciate what you did and why it matters. This is definitely a challenge! (2) Pictures of scrolling numbers are good, but something more would be even better. The source code should be available for review, but plastering your board with the whole code is not helpful. Perhaps you could put key portions of your code with annotations as part of the board, but if your whole center panel is code, no one is going to be interested in reading it expect perhaps a couple of people.

It's a fine line to walk, and it's tricky to get the balance right. Talk to your teacher(s), mentor(s), etc. to get their input and see if they have any ideas about how to show your project in action. You might also try posting in the Computer Science Forum, giving some details on your project, and asking for ideas about how to show functionality in your display.

Good luck; let me know if I can be of more help.

Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Fri Mar 21, 2008 7:51 pm
by skatj
I do have a detailed set of diagrams that show step-by-step how the algorithm works through arrows, maps, and calculations. They also have explanations.

This doesn't prove that it works, but it shows that I understand what I'm doing. I'm not sure if this is what you're talking about.

Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Sun Mar 23, 2008 12:27 am
by skatj
Terik, if you have time, could you comb through my speech and tell me how I should "trim out the fat"?

Currently, it's at 6 minutes but my project has so many elements to it that I'm not sure what to leave out :(

Can I assume, for some of the information,that the judge can read it from the display board?


Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Mon Mar 24, 2008 7:54 pm
by tdaly

I do have a detailed set of diagrams that show step-by-step how the algorithm works through arrows, maps, and calculations. They also have explanations.

This doesn't prove that it works, but it shows that I understand what I'm doing.

This is wonderful. Definitely helpful to judges.

As to your speech, since I'm not really familiar with your project, I really can't tell you what to cut out. I can say, however, that unless you have been asked to give a prepared speech, it probably is not a good idea to get tied into a memorized talk. In my experience, different judges do things in different ways. Some will have specific questions for you, and want you to only answer those questions, not give a general talk about your project. Others will want a 1 minute summary of your project. Others will have you start telling them about your project and then interrupt you as you go along, asking questions. To be quite honest, I never prepared a memorized talk for any competition. It is critical that you have key points you want to make, but I would not get tied into a memorized speech.

Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Fri Mar 28, 2008 6:06 pm
by skatj
Thanks again Terik.

Some last minute questions with the state fair just around the corner :D

To what extent can I depend on my display board to provide needed information? I am leaving out some points from my summary, but if the judges do not specifically question me on those points then the only way he or she can get that information is from my board. I'm not sure on how a science fair proceeds so I dunno if the judges preview the display boards beforehand or what.

What kinds of questions can I expect specifically or an engineering process? (I went over the judging criteria you linked me but I wonder if there are any 'unusual' or uncommon questions you can think of that I might get asked, just so I can cover all my bases. Will they ask me about specific details on my project? (i.e., really technical stuff)


Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Fri Mar 28, 2008 11:36 pm
by tdaly

Let me first wish you best luck at the state fair.

Most ISEF-affiliated fairs have some type of "pre-judging" before the judges talk to the students. Basically, this means that once you have set up your board, the judges have an opportunity to review the displays that have been set up without this students there. During this time, the judges often have a list of projects they are to review and they often have limited time with each project. However, during this time the judges often read the boards that are set up. It is a safe bet to assume that the judges will at least have perused your board before they come to talk to you.

I would like to emphasize that you need to communicate to the judges the key points of your project during the interview. As to the judging process itself, the questions the judges will ask you largely depend on the qualifications of the judge, the time they have had previously to review your project, and any judging criteria that have been provided by the fair. For instance, a judge with a PhD in computer science would ask very different questions than a judge who had taught high school biology for seven years. I can't really comment on the qualifications of the judges at your fair; I can say, however, that at ISEF itself all the judges are PhDs or have equivalent experience in the subject area.

Technical questions about your project are fair game. In fact, such questions are the rule and not the exception. You should be able to go at least two levels deeper into the technical details of your project than you have on your display. You probably know more than the judge does about your project and its technical details, but you should assume that your judge knows more than you do about related areas. If you do not know the answer to a question, say so. If you didn't consider a particular factor, say so. Lying is a sure way to lose. Always remember that just because a judge asks you a question, that does not mean that the judge does not know the answer.

You know your project best. You know what its strengths and weaknesses are. If you feel an area of your project is weak, think about questions you might be asked about it and how you might respond to it. Anticipate questions and prepared answers to them. Not rote, memorized answers, but think about what you would want to say.

A final piece of advice (and one that has often been ignored) is this: answer the question you are asked. Don't beat around the bush; answer the question the judges ask directly. One of the things that drives judges nuts is students who don't answer the questions that they are asked, they just go off on a tangent about something else. Clarity is key. When a judge asks you a question, don't start talking immediately. Take a moment to think about what the judge is really asking (ask for clarification if you do not understand), gather your thoughts, and THEN answer the question. Just like you should look before your leap, you should think before you talk.

Best of luck; let me know how things turn out!

Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Sat Mar 29, 2008 2:30 pm
by skatj
Wow, thanks for the extremely detailed answers! :mrgreen:

I'll definitely let you know how it turns out, since I definitely have a lot to owe to you.

Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Sat Mar 29, 2008 3:40 pm
by skatj

What are your experiences with stuttering? I find that if I don't give a partly memorized speech, I stumble across my words a lot. Do the judges let this slide or can you possibly be penalized?

Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Mon Mar 31, 2008 1:56 pm
by geoffbruton
Hi skatj,

One technique I find that usually helps with stammering is to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Terik's advice in thinking about the question you were asked and being specific was excellent. Once you've been asked a question by a judge (or anyone for that matter), try and gather your thoughts into a coherent form *before* you begin speaking. If you can try and breathe normally during your talk and try not to say everything all in one breath, you should at least limit the amount of stammering. I know this can be quite difficult when your heart is hammering away and you're nervous, but it will also help to calm your nerves and to allow you to enjoy yourself! Trust me - this is from someone who suffers from this 'affliction' and has to do quite a bit of public speaking... :wink:

Best of luck - and have fun! :D

P.S.: I seriously doubt that you will be penalized for stammering; being able to answer the questions asked and to show that you understand the processes that occurred are much more important.

Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Wed Apr 02, 2008 8:19 pm
by tdaly

Apologies for not getting back to you faster! geoffbruton's advice is superb; I really cannot add to what he said but only reiterate:

geoffbruton wrote:Hi skatj,

One technique I find that usually helps with stammering is to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n.... Once you've been asked a question by a judge (or anyone for that matter), try and gather your thoughts into a coherent form *before* you begin speaking. If you can try and breathe normally during your talk and try not to say everything all in one breath, you should at least limit the amount of stammering.

P.S.: I seriously doubt that you will be penalized for stammering; being able to answer the questions asked and to show that you understand the processes that occurred are much more important.

Best wishes!

Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Fri Apr 04, 2008 12:54 am
by skatj
Hey guys,

I won honorable mention, best in category, best in engineering, 550$, and an internship offer :mrgreen:

Thanks for all the help, I really appreciate it and a lot of the advice you guys gave me really helped during the judging and board setup. No trip to ISEF but there's always next year

Re: Few questions about the ISEF

Posted: Fri Apr 04, 2008 8:53 am
by geoffbruton
Congratulations, skatj!

Thank you for the update. That is terrific - well done!

Best wishes,