Judges and the Judging Criteria

Who are the Judges?

Unless it’s a local school fair with teachers from your school, your judges will typically be volunteers (meaning they’re not getting paid to be there) who are local college professors & graduate students, or scientists & business professionals in your field of study. The judges are at the science fair because they’re genuinely interested in the subject area of your project, and might have done similar research in your topic area. Don’t be afraid or intimidated by the judges. With few exceptions, judges are not looking to embarrass you. They want to help students, like you, get more interested in science for a hobby or as a career, and they really want to learn more about what you’ve done with your project.

What Judges Look for Overall in a Winning Science Project

  • Inquisitiveness – This is why it’s so important to pick a subject area and topic you’re interested in learning more about. If you were genuinely curious about it, you’ve probably done a better job and have learned more from your project.
  • Problem Solving – Have you actually applied the scientific method, or the engineering method to your project and answer a question or solve a problem?
  • Perseverance – Did you do a complete job with the project and repeat trials at least three times? If something went wrong, did you “stick with it” and try to figure out what the issue was and make changes?
  • Innovativeness and Original Thinking – It would be great if you could come up with a project that’s never been done before, but not every science fair project can truly be unique. If you are working with an experiment that someone else has done, the judges are trying to determine what went beyond the work of others. Have you basically just copied someone else’s project, or did you do enough research to come up with a new and original twist to the project. Maybe you were creative in an aspect of the scientific process – methods, equipment design, originality of the question, or your use of data?

Your presentation – how to start

When the judge comes to your project…

  • Stand up, SMILE, stick out your hand and say:
  • “Hi, my name is _____ and my project is ______ (state your title)”.
  • Then, BRIEFLY summarize the project starting with where you got the idea for your project and a little background, on to your hypothesis (or goal if it’s an engineering project), procedure & results, to your conclusion. Most times, you are expected to talk for 3-5 minutes about your project. Make sure that as you talk, you point to specific information on your board that you think is important (interesting background research, pictures of your experimentation, graphs of your results). Typically, the judge will not interrupt you during your presentation.
  • Then, say: “Do you have any questions?”

What the Judges will ask you

In addition to question about your project, judges may ask also you questions about the subject area to determine the extent of your general knowledge beyond the specific experiment. And, if you don’t answer the following in your presentation, here are some questions judges might also ask you:

  • How did you come up with the idea for this topic?
  • How long (how many days or months) did it take you to run the experiments and collect each data point?
  • Explain this (one particular) data chart and what each point represents.
  • What materials did you use to build this (one particular) part of the project?
  • Why did you do the experiment the way you did it? Can you think of other ways you may have approached the problem?
  • What books or other resources did you use for your research?
  • What would you have done differently if you had more money to spend on the project?
  • What might be the next thing to research with this project?

How the Judges Score Projects – the Criteria

Judges focus on the quality of the student’s work, what was learned about the chosen subject and the scientific process in general. It’s the quality of the student’s work, not the amount of work that matters. Access to high-end lab equipment in a big lab with professionals, and running the experiment 100 times with the same results is not always better.

The quality of the project will be judged not only on what is exhibited but also on the exhibitor’s ability to discuss the work intelligently. A less complicated project that the student understands really well is better than a more complex one that the student doesn’t understand.

Below is one example of the criteria judges may use to perform an evaluation of you and your project. However, each science fair has its own way of scoring, so you may want to check to see if the judge’s criteria are available to you in advance from your own science fair.

  • 1. Scientific Approach to the Problem
    • Did the student have a valid hypothesis? Has the student followed a scientific approach to the objectives of the project? If it’s an engineering project, has the student designed a clever apparatus and is the experiment applicable to the “real world?” Does the student recognize the scope and limitations of problem? How orderly has the analysis been? Was the equipment the student used appropriate for the experiment? Has the student made good use of available equipment? Are the project’s conclusions consistent with project’s data? Is the project really solid science? (Maximum 30 Points)
  • 2. Original Project Journal/Scientific Notebook/Log
    • Did the student keep an original, dated day-by-day project journal/scientific notebook/log that records all plans, procedures, observations, failures and successes? Usually, only spiral or bound notebooks are acceptable  (Maximum 10 Points)
  • 3. Thoroughness
    • Has the student researched the literature concerning the project? Did the student find ways to discover knowledge not readily available to him or her by going beyond internet research, by reading scientific journals and talking with experts? Has he or she made thorough use of the data? Has he or she constructed charts and graphs wherever applicable? How successfully has the original plan been carried through to completion? (Maximum 15 Points)
  • 4. Communication
    • Has the student clearly explained the hypothesis or design problem and its results? In general, is the explanation of the project clear and concise? Has the student used the correct terminology (rather than slang or jargon) and properly explained how any equipment works? Was the student having a conversation with you about the project and able to answer questions, or did the student just present a prepared speech? What inspired the student to do the project – is the student really enthusiastic and excited by it? (Maximum 15 Points)
  • 4. Ingenuity and Creativity
    • How much originality was shown in method chosen? Has originality been shown in setting up a systematic work schedule and in securing data? How effectively has the student used his or her material in solution of problems? Have safety precautions been observed in conducting experiments? Is the experiment “just plain cool” and makes the judge say “Wow, this was a really great idea!” (Maximum 15 Points)
  • 5. Exhibitor’s Advancement in Science
    • Is the student aware of basic scientific principles that lend support to his or her methods and conditions? Is the student aware of the value of the empirical method, of the necessity of repeated trials and the importance of controlling the variables in experiments to reach valid conclusions? Is the student research-minded? Does the project serve a need, or potentially help to solve any real world problems? (Maximum 15 Points)

Here’s another example of a Science Fair Judging Sheet, for projects using the scientific method or the engineering design process.  It’s the judging criteria for the International Science and Engineering Fair.

Final comment…

It doesn’t happen often but it’s possible you may end up with a judge where things just don’t go right. It may be your first judge and you were really nervous or intimidated. As a result, maybe you didn’t make eye contact, mumbled and couldn’t remember the simplest thing about your project in response to a question. The judge may have missed a key point you were trying to get across, or may not have really understood your project. Or, the judge may want to impress you with his or her knowledge and does all the talking. If any of this happens remember that this is not the only judge with whom you will be talking, so shake off the bad experience — you’re sure to do better with the next judge!