Recently, I traveled to Brasil to attend a Science Fair – the MILSET Brasil 2016. This time, I wasn’t a participant but instead a chaperone for a group of younger students. I was representing the association which financed and organized the whole thing (I also sit in the Board).
I couldn’t have asked for more from this trip – not only is Brazil a beautiful and fascinating country, the students also took home 3 medals, one of which the First Prize in Exact Sciences. Awesome work!
Since our travels went well and we survived a week in Brazil without an incident to speak of, I was motivated to write a post with some advice to prospective travelers in the name of Science.
Prepare in Advance
Whether you’re expecting a 22 hour plane trip or a 1 hour train, be sure to plan it in advance. Of course, the first situation will require a lot more effort.
International travel will have you ask several important questions in order to have a stress-free trip:
- Will I need a visa?
- Is my passport still valid?
- How many airplanes will I need to catch and how long will the flight be?
- How expensive will travelling, housing and eating be?
Even if you’re travelling locally, you still have to get train tickets, figure out where you’ll stay and if you’ll have access to certain resources on the spot. Of course, if someone else takes care of this for you, it’ll save you time.
Taking care of these issues months in advance is essential. Don’t let them steal away precious hours from the actual scientific preparation in the few weeks preceding the event. When combined, small decisions like these will affect the final outcome of the fair.
Getting All the Material
Students usually take care of all the promotional and scientific documentation of their project. Remember that a science project isn’t over until you arrive at a quality poster and/or report (and even then, it’ll be hard to tell).
Poster creation and report writing are way out of the scope of this post. Their complexity attests to the importance of allocating a significant time frame to their creation. Not only do judges evaluate them, they are the very face of the whole project, whether you’re present at the stand or not!
Invest in quality poster design, something that will make people stop by and read it. For those of you less skilled in graphic design, PowerPoint and sites like this one are good alternatives. However, if you are willing to put in the time and effort to learn a program like Adobe InDesign or Illustrator, the results will be far superior.
Another couple of items people usually forget to bring are scissors, duct tape, clips and similar tools. The organization committee doesn’t always provide them during the event and even if they do, you’ll skip the long lines. If you have space to carry them, be sure to do it.
Airports lose luggage all the time and your posters and remaining material are your most precious piece of luggage. Bring them in the cabin to minimize the risk of losing them. Believe me, it happened to several groups I met over the years.
Last but not least, bring pins with your country’s flag (and why not, typical candy, toys and so on). International (and even national) science events are worthwhile mainly because of the cultural exchange. No one wants to miss out on that.
Competitive and Strategic Analysis
Winning isn’t everything. But it beats everything in second place. –William C. Bryant
If you made it to a science fair, I’m sure you’re happy because of the travelling, the experience and the opportunity to meet new people. But I won’t believe for a second if you tell me you wouldn’t like to win something.
If your project has a certain degree of quality and innovation, it’s more than natural to feed the desire of holding a medal or a trophy in your hands. Such a victory, however, takes a lot of work beyond the regular experimenting and documentation processes.
- Go over the official rules of the contest several times. Find out which criteria do the judges value and capitalize on those particular factors. Each fair is different – if they value innovation above anything else, be sure to point out what’s new about your approach. On the other hand, if scientific thoroughness is preferred, detail the project a bit more and tell them how rigorously you conducted the experiment.
- Fine tune your speech. Plan your communication strategy instead of winging it a few minutes before each interview. Write a few bullets on what you have to say and then work on them. Are you saying too much or too little? Are you using the correct terminology?
- Be self-critical about your work. Take a step back and think about how your project could be criticized, both constructively and destructively (both can happen). Then, think about good answers. Presenting a well-thought argument is again much more credible than improvising a half-assed answer (which is what usually happens). This step benefits greatly from asking the collaboration of people outside the main team (e.g. teachers, other judges, friends).
- Work on the Language you’re speaking in. If you are going to talk about your project in a foreign language (it’s English 90% of the time), be sure to do it right. Work on your grammar and specific terminology related with your project. I’ve seen too many excellent projects left behind because of their authors’ inability to speak clear English.
At the end of the day, if you’re having fun and feeling rewarded by your hard work, you’re doing it right. Talk to as much people as you can, take advantage of the multicultural environment and learn as much as you can. For Super Students, there are few events more engaging, didactic and fun than a science fair.