A student stands in dress clothes for five hours, talking about the same topic over and over again. Judges flit by rows of nervous students, furiously scrawling notes on their clipboards.
Welcome to Weber State University’s annual Ritchey Science and Engineering Fair: two days filled with students showcasing a variety of STEM projects. The Ritchey Fair usually occurs in mid-March, with the first day being dedicated to the junior fair for sixth through eighth graders and the second day to ninth and twelfth graders in the senior fair.
Whereas some students only participate for the extra credit their teachers may offer, others take it dead seriously, and for good reason. The Ritchey Fair provides some pretty exciting opportunities for students who perform well at this level. The Ritchey Foundation sponsors four hard working kids from the senior fair to move on as finalists to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). They also choose a few eighth graders to attend as student observers who do not present or get judged.
The 2015 Ritchey Fair was held this past week with the junior fair on March 19 and the senior fair on March 20.
Thanks to The Signpost for funding my microbiological project, I was able to conduct research and attend the senior fair. As a former ISEF 2014 finalist, I knew what I was working toward and how much I would be missing out on if I didn’t make it to ISEF again.
Though some people don’t think the science fair is a big deal, I would argue that point. If you are dedicated to doing legitimate research and you actually care about your project, the stress and hours of work are worth it.
For example, a few weeks before the Ritchey Fair, I heard from a fellow competitor who had also gone to ISEF last year. To prepare for this year’s project, she regularly spent entire weekends working in the lab and would rush over every day after school.
Stories I have heard from other finalists don’t differ by much. I’ve been working on my project for almost a year now and it is still has not progressed as far as I would like it to.
This type of research takes time, because it is not just about how long you have spent in the lab. There are countless hours put into the prep work beforehand. Prior to even forming a specific idea about what I wanted to do, I chose a topic and spent months pouring over scientific articles to gain as much knowledge as I could.
Although it isn’t required, some students like to find a teacher or professional to become their mentor and offer suggestions and help during the process. This may be difficult, depending on how many contacts you have and how busy she or he is.
Then, there is a lot of planning involved. I had to weed through potential project ideas and gauge which ones were actually reasonable, given the time, funding and other resources I had available. Once I finally settled on an idea, I had to plan out the process step by step. This involved contacting people who could help me gain access to the resources I needed.
After that, I was able to start working in the lab. Because there were a few types of equipment I needed to use that Weber State didn’t have, I traveled to Salt Lake City on a regular basis to work in a lab at the University of Utah. Sometimes this involved being in the lab at 3 a.m., depending on when my mentor was available.
For some of us, all that hard work pays off. I placed first in my category and will be sponsored to attend ISEF again.
After experimentation, there is a lot of formatting involved in making a poster, printing it and figuring out the best way to present your project.
Although not everyone puts this much time or thought into their project, almost all of the students who place first or advance to ISEF do. The organizers and director of the fair spend all year answering questions, offering suggestions to students and preparing for the get-together.
So the next time you dismiss the science fair as being a joke, think of how much time and effort some of these students and organizers have dedicated to the event.