I’ve been participating in Science competitions since I was 13-14 years old. I collected a vast array of experiences from partaking in these events – science competitions for high school students, science competitions for college students, medical student competitions, technology competitions and entrepreneurship competitions.
I also had the opportunity to mentor other teams of younger students and even to sit at the judges’ table, so I’ve worn the many hats related to these contests. Not only did I give advice to other prospective winners, but also accepted the challenge of judging other projects.
My insider experience motivated me to write this post, the main lessons I learned from all these years as a Science enthusiast.
#1 Winning Doesn’t Always Depend on You
When you’re done with your project – and that includes getting the results, documenting your work and preparing for the presentation – your work is done. There is nothing more you can do to increase your chances of winning. From there, alea iacta est.
That being said, there a number of factors that can potentially influence the results and you can’t control them. I always told my mentees that no matter how brilliant their project was (and how bad they wanted at least a small prize), you can do everything right and still lose. Such is the life of a competitive student, whether in sports, science or arts.
Of course, you can and you should maximize the chances of winning by developing a deep understanding of your project and by preparing a killer presentation. Studying the competition, looking for ways to improve on your shortcomings after each competition and looking for external guidance are also good ways to improve your chances.
But now that competitions are not easy and that losing does not mean your project isn’t good. It’s just not as good as the other contenders (for the time being).
#2 Communication is Crucial
A lot of younger students present the Build it and they will come mentality. They think that if their project is an outstanding one, they’ll definitely win something, no questions asked. They forget about the power of communication.
The truth is that a great project with a poor presentation can lose against an average project with a great presentation. I’ve seen this happening and it probably happened to me as well. Science competitions are not 100% objective, you still have to seduce the right people to get more points.
That being said, a group with the ability to captivate the audience and make them believe in their vision is likely to win the hearts of the teachers judging the competition. While that’s not enough on its own, it’s still a boost to their chances of winning.
Never plan your project without including at least one month dedicated to work on your presentation. It seems like too much time but it isn’t. Remember that you have to go over content creation, rehearsal and arrive at a stellar performance for the teachers evaluating your work. A perfect 5 minute pitch in front of a poster may take weeks to get just right.
#3 Not all people have Integrity, cheating happens some times
For reasons explained in the lesson #4, some students and their teachers cheat to give the appearance of a better project. That includes outsourcing aspects of their projects (university or industry professionals build out parts of their projects for them and they don’t report it), falsifying results or outright lying about the time-frames during which they conducted their projects.
There is nothing we can do about this and it will probably always occur, much like doping scandals in professional sports. I can only ask you to preserve your own integrity when developing your projects and to never play in the same terms as cheaters. If you are going to win, win cleanly.
#4 Teacher Politics are Ugly
This is not an obvious one, at least from the the students’ perspective. But teachers, much like high school cliques, develop their own politics. They have enemies, friends, allies, people they want to impress, funding they’ll get if they participate in x competitions and so on.
Teacher politics may affect you in either positive or negative ways. Your school may choose another group to participate in the competition instead of you because of teacher politics. Some teacher may try to undermine your project for the same reason. And more often than not, some teachers are only in it for the money and reputation, not to help their students.
I believe those are exceptions to the rule, but I’ve seen it happen before. When you get access to the backstage you can see rivalries between teachers who want to “win” against the others.
#5 Your Team is Everything
At the end of the day, your team will be there for you 100%. That’s why it’s important to choose the right team and only work with exceptional people. Some of my oldest friends are teammates from previous science competitions, we are still good friends till this very day.
Developing ideas together, travelling together, training together and pushing through difficulties together will form bonds that will be very hard to destroy. So be careful with disputes and discussions, always try to preserve the comradeship between your teammates, even when things look grim.
Overall, science competitions are a great experience. Working on something bigger than me, practicing selling my own ideas, travelling, networking – all of this comes from participating in these events. I can confidently say that I learned much more in science competitions than I every did in school or college.
Keep dreaming, keep winning, but most of all, never give up!