« Happy Darwin Day! | Main | Evolution of symbiosis »

Science fairs versus real scientific meetings

"But there's an invitation to read my paper before the Academy of Science." -- John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday
This is part of a series on science fairs; click "science fairs" at right for more.

If you're a kid interested in science, people may encourage you to do a science project and enter it in a science fair. I agree with the "science project" part, but I'm not so sure about the "science fair" part. The thing I don't like about science fairs is the idea that someone wins and everyone else loses. That's very different from the way real science works.

We scientists do like to get together and tell other scientists about our projects. Some of us give talks, to audiences of a few other scientists or hundreds. Others put up "poster presentations", which are pretty similar to the displays at science fairs. The posters are typically up for at least a day, as part of a meeting lasting several days, but there are specific times scheduled when scientists will be at their poster to answer questions.

But, with a few exceptions, nobody is in charge of "judging" talks or posters. People ask questions and sometimes make positive or negative comments, but a student can criticize a Nobel-prize winner; there aren't any "judges."

When I was in high school in Oregon, the Oregon Junior Academy of Science put on real scientific meetings like this, where high-school students presented their work and discussed it with other young scientists. If there was any judging going on, it wasn't emphasized enough for me to remember it. It was an honor just to have your talk accepted for presentation, like it was for "Doc", the character (based on real-world scientist Ed Ricketts) speaking in the quote above. Most US states still have a Junior Academy of Science, but I get the impression that many are now infected by judging. Too bad. There's also a national American Junior Academy of Sciences, which meets alongside the grownup version, the American Association for the Advancement of Science or AAAS. Meetings of the AAAS always look interesting; I should go to one some year, but I usually end up spending my meeting-travel budget on more specialized meetings.

Although the Oregon Junior Academy of Science talks weren't judged, the rewards sometimes went beyond the satisfaction of interesting discussions. One year, six of us were offered an expense-paid trip to the national Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. There were only two catches. We had to give our talk at the state symposium, which was easy and fun. And... the state and local symposia are sponsored by the military.

This was the height of the Vietnam War, for which men about our age were being drafted to die propping up a South Vietnamese government that didn't seem to be any more democratic than the rebels -- I guess we would call them "terrorists" now -- trying to overthrow them. Lots of Vietnamese civilians were being killed, too, and the National Guard had just shot several students at Kent State. Nobody in the Oregon group was very enthusiastic about the military, but we agreed to go, anyway....

The national meeting was held at the University of Tennessee. I guess the organizers assumed there wouldn't be much opposition to the military in the South. But the evening we arrived, lots of students had organized a big rally against the war. I think Al Gore may have been one of the speakers. The organizers of our meeting were worried, and posted guards at the entrance to our dorm, to keep out trouble-makers. But one member of the Oregon delegation climbed out a window and got some antiwar flyers printed, addressed to the meeting participants. We all got up at 5 in the morning and slipped one under each door in the dorm. The next day, the meeting organizers were obviously upset, and moved the whole meeting off campus.

"And we was fined $50 and had to pick up the garbage in the snow, but that's not what I came to tell you about." -- Arlo Guthrie

I was telling you about scientific meetings for junior and senior scientists. Once you're in college, even as an undergraduate, you can probably do more sophisticated science projects, typically with some advice from a professor and/or a graduate student. If you get some interesting results, you should consider presenting them at a regular scientific meeting. I remember giving talks on my undergraduate research at a regional Academy of Science meeting (or something similar) and at the International Symposium on Acid Rain (or similar). My college paid my travel costs.

There are also meetings just for undergraduate researchers, such as the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. The University of Minnesota is paying costs for several students, including Carolyn Anderson, who did her research in our lab, to participate in this meeting.

If you go to graduate school in science, you should definitely plan on giving talks and poster presentations at one or more of the meetings for scientists in your field. You can hear about research that isn't published yet, get useful feedback on your own research, and find collaborators or a job.

These meetings can be expensive. Your major professor may be able to pay some of your expenses to talk about work done in her lab. Or your department may have travel grants. But keeping costs down is the key. Staying in hotels is expensive, but meetings held at or near a university often offer inexpensive dorm housing. Dorm housing can be a really good deal. By staying in the dorm at one meeting, I had access to the campus Olympic pool, whereas hotel pools are usually too small (and too warm) to swim laps. At the Applied Evolution Summit, last month, most people stayed at the resort, but a few of us stayed in dorms at the research station. Unlike the resort, the research station had internet access. Actually, I was planning to write about the Applied Evolution Summit today, but this post is long enough.


Not sure I agree about the Science Fair point. Kids need to learn that there are winners and losers at an early age. Not everyone is going to win every time. They got the science part of it out of the project, so at that point it doesn't really matter if they win or lose.

But science DOESN'T have winners and losers the way sports does.

Interesting read. I am going through this right now with my daughter who is in Oregon. She is doing her science fair project based on what she thinks the judges want to see, not what she is interested in researching.

I am also agreeing with both of you that there is no winner & looser in science fairs, if someone win that it’s not mean that who is extra genius & others are duffer, every one work hard in science fair & all are able to do something extraordinary.


I'm curious. What does your daughter think the judges want to see? Good judges want to see controls and replication, for example, but does she think they are biased for or against particular topics?

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Type the characters you see in the picture above.