1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Honest opinions of the Intel Science Fair

  1. Feb 14, 2008 #1
    I am absolutely enraged after looking at this years Intel Science Fair. I would like to start a legitimate discussion about this.

    Here is my main issue with the science fair; THE PROFESSORS. I know there are a few professor on this board and I would love to hear your opinions about my argument.

    I am completely disgusted with how some professors will spend more time with overachieving high school students who more than likely have already solidified an acceptance to a great university, than their own undergraduate students who:
    1) first of all, pay their salary (in most cases, unless the uni is public, but still you get my point, dont nit pick me to death)
    2) are more equipped to tackle real research than a high school student.

    I am not mad at the high school students; listen these kids are just on their game more so than I was at that age, more power to them. I saw the list of professors, and I almost broke my computer because one of the professors on the list, I know very well; does not teach any undergrads, is not accesible to undergrads AT ALL, has a stellar reputation but helps HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS EVERY YEAR! Every year this professor has had at least an Intel Semi Finalist, and I know for a fact this professor is INVISIBLE to undergrads at my institution.

    Plus, how legitimate is it that an 18 year old is doing REAL RESEARCH ON STRING TOPOLOGY or GENERAL RELATVITY?!!!

    Anyone? Am I just a raving lunatic? Jealousy maybe? I don't know, but I'm beyond annoyed.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 14, 2008 #2
    I guess these professors just want the better students to join their university. I was poached from another university haha. The professor at my current University poached me from the other university after i accepted their course in physics.
  4. Feb 14, 2008 #3
    You bring up an interesting point. I am a high school student who has done well in many research competitions, and I have met many of the top winners. I will assure you, the 18 year olds doing real research on topology etc is VERY LEGITIMATE. Once you've taken calculus in middle school, what else are you to do? You go higher up in math, that's what. I never thought about it from your point of view, as an undergrad, which does seem somewhat unfair.
  5. Feb 14, 2008 #4
    I'm not even saying analysis/topology, calculus of manifolds is out of the question; but some of these topics are cutting edge research topics in string theory. I find it a little inappropriate and I highly doubt it is anything like a graduate student/thesis adviser arrangement. I think the adviser is the one driving most of the research, and if the HS student does anything, it is probably more numerical calculations (which a lot of the more complicated physics/mathematics problems were).
  6. Feb 14, 2008 #5


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I won 2nd and 3rd place grand awards at two consecutive ISEFs back in high school. The experience was fantastic. I don't recall having any involvement from any university professors, either. I doubt that most professors, acting as advisors to one or two students, spend more than 10-20 hours total over the course of the entire year. If they attend the fairs as judges, they probably do it on their own time (and it only lasts a couple of days).

    I think you're overreacting.

    - Warren
  7. Feb 14, 2008 #6
    no no, it's not just numerical calculations. I'm talking string theory as well. There are special programs where the top of the top high school students are selected to do research with professors, who participate in those programs
  8. Feb 14, 2008 #7
    To add to what homomorphism says, I'm sure everybody that goes to RSI (for example) enters their project into ISEF. There are some amazingly talented high schoolers out there.
  9. Feb 14, 2008 #8


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Oh wow! This is puzzling. A high school student taking String Theory. ST is more like graduate physics study. I simply cannot believe that a high school student can claim comprehension in these regards. I know some of my physics buddies will be very jealous upon hearing this: that some high school student has essentially cut in front of them, skipped the undergrad part, and just went straight in ST.
  10. Feb 14, 2008 #9


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Yeah, I've competed in many of these science fairs (and, you know, won a couple of them). No one does any work in string theory. :rolleyes:

    The most advanced project I've ever seen was a kid who built a home-made tabletop cyclotron. It seemed pretty badass at the time, but in retrospect it was only impressive because it was built by a kid.

    - Warren
  11. Feb 14, 2008 #10


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    There are assorted and sundry programs to bring high school students into research labs, and the incentive for faculty to sponsor them is either 1) the program pays some modest expenses to undo whatever damage one fears a high school student might do...um...I mean to cover research expenses for the student's project, or 2) to satisfy a requirement for participating in outreach programs. The rest of us take in students because we're big suckers who enjoy providing a learning opportunity for someone who's really interested in a subject area we work in. But, us big suckers don't count, because we do take in the undergrads too.

    Now, on a more nitpicky point, your tuition ISN'T paying the portion of a professor's salary for the time they are working in the lab. Your tuition pays the portion of their salary for the time they spend teaching you in the classroom. Often the rest of their salary is coming from extramural funding THEY have brought in themselves. Some of this funding comes with requirements to get involved in outreach programs (sponsoring a high school student would be considered outreach, while having an undergrad work in your lab isn't, because that's more a common expectation of having a position at a university).

    Some consideration should also be given to when the request to work in the lab was made. I've been signed up since January to take in another summer intern, so if I only had a limited amount of work or projects that could be done by inexperienced interns, anyone asking me now would have to be turned down (that's not the case though...I would have to turn down anyone asking to be paid though since I don't have any more funds to pay summer students). Of course, I also work with a grad student and post-doc now who are at a stage where they need to gain some supervisory experience, so I might be inclined to take in students who would work directly with them instead of with myself. That could be the case with someone taking in high school students too. If I had a grad student who wasn't quite yet ready to supervise an undergrad, I might still trust him/her to supervise a high school student to gain some experience or just to have a helper to get more stuff done.

    So, as you can see, there are a lot of reasons why one might take in a high school student but not an undergrad, and not all are selfish, while some are. (And, you never know, there's always the last reason which is that it's a personal favor for the department chair or some such person you can't really say "no" to...I got trapped into that once, supervising a dept chair's daughter for a summer project to help her get into grad school).
  12. Feb 14, 2008 #11
    i've competed with the kid (i'm assuming your talking about) who did research in string theory (project was in pure math, with applications to string theory). I know several kids who have taken calculus in middle school and started taking undergrad level math courses in late middle school or early high school. Like I said, taking calculus in middle school leaves enough time to take a lot of math courses. And during these top competitions (siemens and intel sts) the judges have around 12 minutes or more to interview you alone. During that time is when you show how much you really know. I know they've asked kids to prove theorems in their paper, on the spot, and they'll ask very detailed questions. These are the top judges in the country/world of your field who interview you in a room, alone. If these judges say that a project is qualified/good, I would not argue with them. Like I said, I have competed in many of these top high school research competitions and I know what the level of work is, and how much rigor is involved in judging.
  13. Feb 15, 2008 #12
    Second year undergrad, competed in ISEF back in high school. So I have some experience.

    First of all, I am working in a research lab now, where the professor is notorious for not allowing undergrads to work in his lab. The truth is, the professor just wants good students, and most undergrads aren't good enough. If you think you are smart enough to work for this professor, contact them and prove yourself.

    Back to the science competitions.

    As people have already alluded to, judges are in place to weed out students who are full or **** or presenting their professors work. The judges ask hard questions that you just won't know unless you did the work yourself. I got frustrated when I would have judges who didn't know anything about my work, and thus were not intelligent to ask detailed questions, and assumed I did not know my work. On the contrary, judges who grilled me learned quickly that I knew my ****.

    Age is irrelevant. Terrance Tao is a professor at my school, that guy was ridiculous at the age of 18, and now he is even more brilliant. I think you need qualified professors if you want to continue to push science.
  14. Feb 15, 2008 #13


    User Avatar

    I go to UCLA too. What's your major?

    Anyways, I think that its great professors take some undergrads for research and I agree completely with alex caps.

    Most undergrads are not good enough to do research. I'm sure that when I entered college there were many high school students that were years ahead of me in terms of mathematical knowledge. My guess is alot of it depends on what high school you go to, what skills you demonstrate and whether there are any people there that can recognize your skills and help you develop them.

    In my first year of college I was planning to double major in math and physics and knew I wanted to eventually be a researcher. During my second quarter I started trying to find someone so I could work with in a lab. When you are at the level that I was at there isn't much you could do. I did not get to work with the professor that I wanted to work with but he referred me to another professor (researching in astrophysics). That professor referred me to his post-doc (the professor was on sabatical) and fortunately for me I had learned programing really well in high school and that allowed them to have me working in the lab handling some of the data that was collected from the professor's project. It was not much but it was a start. When the professor came back the following fall I had decided that I was going to focus on math and not major in physics or astrophysics). Because of what the post-doc had said about me the professor was ready to move me to the experimental aspect of the project rather than computer work if I wanted. I told him that for now I would be focusing on math and was planing to do a 3-year plan leaving me very little time for research. He told me that if I got more time later on and wanted to work there again to let him know.

    So I stopped doing physics but I knew I still wanted to do math. I was only beginning to take upper division classes back then. I'm sure most math professor's would have rejected the idea of me doing research under them back then. I was fortunate to find a professor who was teaching a programming class I was taking and who I talked to alot during office hours and said he had a few project I could try to work on. These were projects which I did not need alot of background to understand (pre-calculus and some knowledge of complex numbers). So at least I would be able to look at something. Alot of the study was computational and had to use mathematica (or maple but I chose mathematica) to do my research. I learned alot during this project but the problem was far too difficult for me to solve at the level which I wanted. I could have published in an undergrad journal or in another journal that a collaborator of my professor edited at the time. Mainly I would have publish the results of my computations and one proof about a very specific case of the problem. I ended up not publishing an focusing more on learning more math. (I quit the project because I was taking my first grad class and it was very difficult for me (actually it was also the professor who made the class very very time consuming (that has still been the most time consuming in terms of hours I was forced to spend working on homework and reading. Of course I have had classes in which I spent more time but it was not required time. I am now in my final year at UCLA and have learned alot of math (and have taken more grad math classes than undergrad math classes) and while I had not gone back to doing (original) research, even though I could probably get some results now, I am a regular member of one of the graduate seminars and gave the first lecture this quarter (I gave the last two last quarter) and will give at least one more this quarter and some more during the spring. (The rest of the people in the seminar I am in are all 6th year grad students).

    Now that I have explained a bit about my experience in being an undergrad and trying to do research, let me say again most undergrads (at least at UCLA) are not good enough to do research under professors at a university, especially if you are talking about math. Maybe they have the potential to develop into undergrads who are good enough but it takes alot of work and alot of hours in order to get to that level. It can be done. But we have to start early. I'm sure I would not have a much smaller chance than I do know of getting into research with a math professor if I had started trying to get into research this year after following the curriculum and scheduling that most undergrads follow. To any undergrads reading this and especially to first and second years, if you work hard enough (and of course are competent enough) you can get to the point where you can do original research under a professor. Its like alex caps said. You just have to prove yourself. You can start with small projects under assistant professors and just work yourself up. Talk to people. Ask professors about other professors which might do research in an area in which at least you would be able to learn something (actually this can be for those who are in their 3rd or 4th year too). It doesn't matter if you don't do research in a cutting edge field or if you don't get important results the important thing is that you learn. Therefore also look for professors who are interested in student learning. Many professors are not and they would surely reject you if you are not talented and knowledgeable enough to contribute (I know many of these myself). But they are not all like that.

    Now I wish I never competed in any of these high school competitions (I was not good enough) but I am glad they exist and I am glad university professors take the time to help the high school students who are good enough to do high-level original research. Age doesn't matter. But from my guess preparation and environment matter (of course along with sill and hard work). I will make sure that if my children are good enough I will assist them in learning alot when they are in middle school and high school. See during that time we have alot of time. The normal curriculum is far too easy for really talented kids and it is very very possible to learn alot (given enough skill) during those year. A student with the desire and skill can do all the work that his high school education requires and focus the rest of his time one math and learn alot. One of my brothers who is in 9th grade right now could finish calculus this (school) year and if he wanted to he could finish the undergrad curriculum I did at UCLA by the end of his 4th year in high school along with being a good runner. He decided against spending so much time on math and decided he will balance his education so I'm not going to force him. He is not as dedicated as I am (and was when I was in high school) but thats OK. The one's who are dedicated can take the opportunities that exist for such students.

    Let me just finish by saying that there are some of us(and this message in intended for those who fall under the same category, maybe you are one of these JasonJo) that love learning and research but did not have as many opportunities when we were young as others. My parents did not know anything about even high school education much less college education and could not nurture my love for learning. Now that I am at the level which I am at I can help my brothers (to the extent that they allow to be helped of course) and will later help my children (or my son if I don't have any more children that the son I have now) and will definitely have more influence on them than I do on my brothers (I don't live with them any more and they cannot see me work as hard I I do an have so are less motivated to do so themselves than they would be if they were by my side while I was learning math). If you were not privileged like I was not that OK. Not everyone can be. But what you can do is start working hard right now. There is no point in feeling bad about not having had such a great start. Just work hard and maybe you can get to the highest levels of your chosen field sometime in the future and again if you want to get into research, don't be picky and don't feel bad about some professors not wanting to have you do research for them just start small and work yourself up.
  15. Feb 15, 2008 #14


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    This is a factor too. We don't want to babysit in the labs, and aren't interested in a student just looking to boost their resume. But, when an undergrad shows up who really impresses us with their enthusiasm, and sounds intelligent, we'll take them in. It's very possible that JasonJo just didn't come across well when contacting that professor about research (doesn't mean he might not be good at it, but as they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression).
  16. Apr 12, 2008 #15
    you must be lucky

    You must be lucky to win grand awards. I haven't seen any one at high school level winning anything. only people wins who has some lab connections. I worked hard on my project this year and I thought it turned out pretty good but it didn't get pick for INTEL. I was very disappointed and disgust. All the projects won to go to INTEL from my state were done in the research lab with lots of help from university professors.
    May be you can give me some idea to what I can do for next year. It's my dream to make it to intel.

  17. Apr 12, 2008 #16
    For most college faculty jobs, reaching out to High School students is a well-accepted and smiled upon activity consistent with the job description. Most Physics department heads probably wish they could convince their faculty to spend more time with recruiting and other activities that increase the department's visibility among High School students.

    Most college Physics faculty want to work with the best and the brightest kids. Sometimes that means less time with the students already at the college and more time with local High School students. Students already at the college only have a legitimate complaint if the professor is regularly neglecting his duties to post and hold regular office hours. When I was at LSU, it was something of a regular occurance for professors to not be in their office during office hours, but I learned to track them down in their labs where they were always happy to help me. I'm sure the department office can tell you where any given professor's office is.

    College professors are obligated to provide a certain amount of help outside of class for courses they are teaching, but they are not obligated to assist students in research projects. Usually professors only provide research opportunities to students who are both good students and have shown themselves to be dependable.

    Michael Courtney
  18. Apr 12, 2008 #17


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I had no help from any kind of university or lab faculty.

    - Warren
  19. Apr 14, 2008 #18

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I'm late to this thread-

    I judged the ISEF when it was here in Cleveland about 4 years ago. Here's my perspective.

    I saw generally two types of entrants. One was the suburban child of a science/engineering professional who was placed in the lab of a parents' colleague (either by nepotism or by legitimate means), spent a summer pushing buttons, and appeared at the competition with a professionally- done poster exhibit. The talk had clearly been rehearsed in front of the researhc group, and upon questioning, the entrants had little to no idea *why* the project was being done in the first place. Also, the entrants generally could not articulate any of the underlying science, and were more excited to be working around grown-ups and their toys rather than understanding nature.

    The second type generally came from a rural area, had little access to *real* science, and built something: wind tunnels were big that year. Someone built a giant vaccum chamber device. This entrant inevitably did a project that was boring, 50 years out of date, trivial, etc. etc. BUT, and this is huge, understood *why* they were doing the project. And even better, they were excited about science and demonstrated a good understanding of the subject matter.

    Then there were the ones who did not fit into either category- more later:

    Look, this is a high school competition. There is no way a high schooler can do leading-edge science. Or engineering. I saw some really awsome projects- someone built a working radio out of pennies.

    During the voting session, our group argued between two projects. One, the crowd favorite, was installed into a lab at MIT "doing carbon nanotube research". The entrant ran code for a month. Not even his own code. But, the project was sexy, the poster was neat and tidy with lots of big sexy words ("density functional theory", "exciton"). There may have even been a paper with his name on it, next to a Internationally Renowned Physicist Who Is Really Really Important!

    Myself and a few others argued forcefully for an alternative- one of the oddballs. She had a simple hypothesis: cooking blueberries increased the anti-oxidant potency. She went around and begged time on various instruments which she learned how to use, and in the end, had a great time. Yes, she went to university laboratories, but that's not the point- she did her own project. The argument against her was "This isn't physics", or "There was no significant findings" (duh- she's a high schooler).

    In the end, my candidate prevailed, won the Physics competition, and went on to the overall finals (did not win). Why? because we successfully argued that the entrants should be judged on *their* work and *their* knowledge, not the PIs project.
  20. Apr 14, 2008 #19
    Great points (truncated for brevity). I haven't seen many science projects past the regional level (that is, the first level above the local schools), so I have not had a chance to see what kind of quality bubbles up to the top.

    I do think there is some chance for high-schoolers to do physics projects that have not been done before (or at least that aren't overly represented or already in the literature). I would hope that applied topics, clever demonstrations of fundamental principles, and numerical experiments on dynamical systems would not be judged too harshly.

    Regarding numerical experiments, if a high schooler demonstrates sufficient understanding to get their mind around a dynamical system and writes the code (Runge-Kutta, etc.) for integrating the equations, and can make some sense in interpreting the results, I'd say they have completed an outstanding project, particularly if the dynamical system is a simple model of something interesting that the student set out to understand.

    There are lots of possible clever demonstrations of fundamental principles. Rather than think about whether this kind of work is publishable in a research journal, I think about whether it would stand a chance at getting published in one of the pedagogical journals (The Physics Teacher, Physics Education, American Journal of Physics, etc.) In my mind, anything in the right ballpark that is truly the student's work would be a very good science project.

    Applied topics can run the spectrum of nearly any problem in basic engineering, but some are more on the basic physics side also, but sufficiently complex not to be trivial. One idea that was discussed recently is how the propagation speed of falling dominoes depends on the relevant parameters. I'd say that a student that presents both a theoretical analysis and experimental measurements on this problem has done a pretty good job.

    Zooming out, I'd have to say that the whole idea of judging the relative merits of scientific work is unsatisfying. Sure, science fairs are great for generating interest, activity, and enthusiasm in science. But the idea that a lot students with good projects end up being dubbed "losers" is unsatisfying.

    My best showing in a high school science fair was an honorable mention at the regional level. I'd played around with the planetary data and come up with an empirical formula relating the period, radius, and "planetary number" of the major planets that was good to 10% or so. It was a weird blend of quantum and classical ideas that were rolling around in my mind as a senior in high school. Both the discussions with the judges and the honorable mention were very satisfying, even though the judges "called me out" regarding a fudge factor in my formula.

    I guess the point is that there are a lot of science projects that represent considerable effort and merit, and I hate the thought that the students might go home feeling like losers.

    I remember being nominated for an award for the outstanding thesis in AMO physics the year I graduated. I was one of five finalists. The projects were very different, and trying to say which one was ultimately "better" was an odd idea. I certainly would not have claimed that my project was better than anyone elses there, or even that I belonged in that kind of company. The science was beautiful. The science was fun. I loved my project the best, because it was mine. But I loved the other ones also. Is this not the point?

    Michael Courtney

    (I'm really not an "everybody is a winner" kind of a guy. I believe in merit-based awards in academia, and I believe that some students are better than others. It's just much easier to judge that kind of thing by comparing scores on the AP Physics test than by judging science/research projects.)
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2008
  21. Apr 14, 2008 #20

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I absolutely agree that it's unfortunate that many very good projects do not win science fairs. But, that's also true of grant applications, where the stakes are considerably higher.

    I think most of the judges I worked with would agree that the student's understanding of the material is what mattered most, not the specific project.

    And while I agree also that your example projects should rate well, I never saw anything like that in practice. Here's an example:

    This particular student learned in school that one could measure a grating pitch by diffraction. So, he built an optical bench on the second-floor hallway in his house, using scavenged parts (I forget how he scammed a HeNe laser), and proceeeded to measure the grating pitch of: a CD (several different varieties), DVD (ditto), Laser Disk, etc. etc. There was probably 15 different measurements. All with comprehensive data and error analysis. He even compared his results with the published spec.

    Now: what is the utility of this? Is this a good or bad science project? It's possible to argue either way.

    Here's another- I use this example often-

    It was a group project, three students from a very rural area wanted to determine over what wavelength range Polarioid Ektachrome film was most sensitive (not surprisingly, the visible...). Here's how my question and answer session went.

    (me) Ok, you have a clear hypothesis and method. How did you expose the film to X-rays?
    (them) We went to the local airport and passed the film through the scanner.

    - Good. Ok, what about ultraviolet?
    - We went to a local tanning shop.

    -Visible is obvious.... Infrared?
    - One of us works at McDonalds, we left the film under a heat lamp.

    -Great. Now, what about radio exposure?
    (nervous laughing) "Well, that's interesting. We weren't sure what to do, so we asked our SCIENCE TEACHER who told us that we should hold the film near where radio waves are concentrated, *like a radio*. So we held it next to a radio for 10 minutes."

    I was completely stunned. Is it fair to hold the students accountable for their teacher's foolishness? I indicated that they got some bad advice and moved on.

    Another student spend his summer vacation in a large lab working on laser propulsion. He spent his time giving a well-polished talk, culminating with a presentation of the propulsed cargo currently "holding the world record for distance". After he got done, obviously very proud of himself (by itself, not a bad thing), I asked him to define the difference between energy and momentum.

    Total silence.

    I said "ok, thanks." and moved on.
  22. Apr 14, 2008 #21

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    Laser pointer? Okay, it's not a HeNe, but the wavelength is pretty close.
  23. Apr 14, 2008 #22
    I like this project. Sometimes the utility is not evident until later, but most good scientists should always appreciate good measurements.

    Depending on the degree of accuracy of the pitch determination, I could see potential usefulness in determining unknown wavelengths. (Of course, I've spent time as a spectroscopist.) Scientists used to work really hard machining gratings with well-determined wavelengths. Once you've got a known laser frequency and a constant pitch grating, you're in business as a spectroscopist. A second possibility is to use the calibrated grating to test how different factors (temperature, current, etc.) impact the laser frequency. Alternatively, one also has the potential for an optical strain gage. Lots of variations on the theme are possible with just a bit of imagination on where the student has come thus far.

    Last edited: Apr 14, 2008
  24. Apr 16, 2008 #23

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I did in fact really enjoy this project, and encourage the student to keep playing around.

    That said, I could not judge his project based on work he had not yet done. Thus, no matter what the potential utility, what the students *must* be judged on was the work they did. If the student had listed some of these ideas in his conclusions (he did not) I could certainly take his creativity into account.
  25. Jul 19, 2008 #24
    Hi I am a 15 year old grade 10 student and right now I have a mentor but I dont have a specific idea for a project. I was wondering what kind of project it takes to do well and I dont mean win your local science fair well I mean going all the way. What are the signs of a good project.
    P.S I am planning on doing a project in health sciences
  26. Jul 22, 2008 #25
    cure cancer.... seriously.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook