Success at the International Science & Engineering Fair

The International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF) is the peak student science competition in the World. 1800 students from 80 countries; millions of dollars in prizes; hundreds of judges, parents, teachers. ISEF this year is taking place in Phoenix, Arizona and I am here with the Australian team.

The Australian award winners

The Australian team is 15 amazing students aged from 16-19. Their projects range from remediating water with coriander, to improving fire alarms, to mapping routes through space. And on top of having come up with an amazing range of scientific research and engineering projects, they are a wonderful group of young people of whom Australia should be proud.

Each student gets a booth with a table inside the cavernous exhibition space. They can set up a poster and a display of their project within a strict set of rules. Set-up was seriously daunting with two sets of inspectors poring over every element of the project to make sure it complied with the rules. The scale of the undertaking is mind-boggling with 1800 students setting up 1500 booths in the space of few hours. There are language issues, things lost in transit, complex models to be assembled, security issues; this is the very definition of a hive of activity.

And these projects are amazing. This isn’t bubbles coming out of paper mache volcanoes – it’s serious scientific and engineering endeavours. It is no exaggeration to say that some of these students and their projects will go on to change the World.

It’s not all work though. The students get to meet Nobel Laureates, try out cool technology, go to a baseball game, and a bunch of other activities which give them a chance to bond with like-minded people from all around the globe.

ISEF runs for five days but the core day is Judging Day – one day in which each student presents their project to up to twelve individual judges; even more if other judges decide they want to take a look. It is intense, and confronting, and exhausting. Students have to explain and justify their project multiple times throughout the day and people take this very seriously.

To put this in perspective the 1800 students here have worked their way to the top of a group of 7 million students from around the World who participated in local and regional science fairs. So just being here is an phenomenal achievement.

But if you place or win a prize it’s pretty much a direct route to a US college; and that’s on top of the monetary prizes. This year there was over US$5 million in prizes available, including the ultimate prize of $US75,000. With that much at stake, ISEF is fiercely competitive with the students putting huge efforts into their projects and presentations. Although, that said, it is heartwarming to see the way the students interact and support each other.

After Judging Day comes the award ceremonies. First the special awards from specific sponsors looking for distinct things – like NASA or the American Acoustic Society. Then, the next day, the Grand Awards. Both ceremonies are enormous and done in that full-on, exciting way that Americans do so well.

So after months of preparation, travelling around the World, and five days of intense effort, how did the Australian team go? Fabulously.

The Australian team won two special prizes, an honourable mention, and seven Grand Awards. There were a lot of happy faces.

Regardless of prizes all fifteen members of the team can be rightly proud of being here and the way they’ve represented their country. I just hope their country will be equally proud of them.

Emma Serisier, Bishop Druitt College, Coffs Harbour – 3rd place Grand Award in the category of Animal Sciences (eq. 5th in the world in that category).

Eliza Martin, PLC Sydney – 4th place Grand Award in the category of Biomedical and Health Sciences (eq. 14th in the world in that category).

Lucy Lake, Barker College – 2nd place Grand Award in the category of Engineering Mechanics (eq. 3rd in the world in that category).

Macinley Butson, The Illawarra Grammar School – 2nd place Grand Award in the category of Translational Medical Sciences (eq. 2nd in the world in that category).

Callum Predavec, Mosman High School – 4th place Grand Award in the category of Mathematics (eq. 7th in the world in that category). Callum was Australia’s first-ever Mathematics delegate and hence our first-ever mathematics winner.

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