Memories of Science Fair

by Bryan Nelson, longtime MAS member.

BNelson

The summer before my sophomore year of high school, I had an idea for a project: I wanted to examine how self-esteem relates to dietary patterns and exercise tendencies, based on a thought I had about an interest in body dysmorphic disorder, self-esteem, and eating disorders. That project would end up being one of the most significant decisions I’ve ever made, helping me to determine what I’m going to do for a career as well as helping to earn me a full tuition scholarship – the only way I could afford to attend college. I’ll write more about the importance and potential impact of science fair on one’s life in another post. In this one, I’d like to give a glimpse at what to expect the experience to be like if you go as far as I was fortunate enough to.

My project, “The Effects of Self Esteem on Exercise Frequency,” ended up winning First Place at the Massachusetts State Science and Engineering Fair in 2010. As a result, I ended up presenting my project at the Massachusetts Junior Academy of Science Symposium in the fall of 2011 at MIT.  Despite the amount of work put in, the experience of that project is one I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Now, here’s a timeline of my experience.

Early March, 2010: My project wins second place at my high school fair, which guarantees me a spot at the Massachusetts Region IV Science Fair. We had two weeks to prepare for the Region IV Fair.

I’m amazed how much I was able to flesh out the project between the school and regional fairs. In those two weeks, I continued the work I had been doing with my school’s AP Statistics teacher to help me build a solid foundation of statistics to better interpret the results. The lesson to take from this, I suppose, is don’t be afraid to approach someone to help teach you something. Only juniors and seniors were allowed to take AP Statistics at my school, but Mr. Walsh was willing to help me despite the fact I was only a sophomore at the time. This also helped to build a strong relationship with him; he ended up writing me a fantastic college recommendation.

In late March 2010, at the Region IV Fair, my partner and I placed 38th (our worst result!) but still made it within the top 40, all that was needed in order to qualify to go to the Massachusetts State Science and Engineering Fair (MSSEF) at MIT. We would have about 6 weeks in between to prepare.

My partner and I were both sick during the fair, and were relieved to have made it to states. I was excited to get six weeks to prepare for states, and ended up spending every waking minute getting the project up to par.

(An interesting note: the Intel International Science Fair competitors are chosen at regional fairs, so despite the fact that we placed higher than any other group in Massachusetts at MSSEF our year, we did not qualify for Intel. I guess the lesson here is, had we been prepared earlier and had the project we presented at states ready to present at regionals, we may have also gone to internationals. Always prepare early.)

In between regionals and states is when I met with Dr. Duffy from my school district and spoke to her about the Youth Risk Behavioral Survey, something that I hope to have my survey added to one day, to help asses students at risk of eating disorders in our district.

States was an amazingly fun experience. The first day, you get there at about 8 am and are judged until “around noon.” We ended up being judged until around 5! During the 7 hours we were being judged, I was dehydrated and tired, but found myself revitalized every time I flipped through our 150- page paper to answer a question. I knew that I was experiencing a life-changing weekend.

After the judging, there is a dinner and a dance, where all the competitors hang out and talk about life, science, and their projects. That was one of the most fun parts of the entire weekend.

The next day begins with an optional tour of MIT, something that my parents and I chose to do. I think the tour is a great touch because it helps all the kids there that are already interested in science to see all the great opportunities that Massachusetts has to offer for higher STEM education.

The day then has a public showing for about 4 hours. I was extremely happy to get to speak with so many people from the biostatistics field, who were there to see the fair.

I cannot stress enough how vital a good board is to a successful project. For every compliment I received about my use of statistics, we received just as many for the board.

After winning first at the state fair, I was surprised to receive an email from Dr. Mandana Sassanfar of MIT. She wanted us to present for the Massachusetts Junior Academy of Sciences symposium at MIT, a privilege only given to the previous year’s first place winners at MSSEF. So in October of 2011, we went to give a 10-minute presentation of our project to a panel of judges with a 2-minute question and answer section.

As I understand it, we were two of the only juniors presenting; most of the presenters were either seniors or were freshmen in college. Despite not winning the symposium, I feel that it was a perfect end to the project. After a summer away from MIT, we were able to come back, with a fresh perspective, and speak about our project.

The symposium was comprised of the best of the best, and some of the projects there still amaze me today. I wouldn’t be surprised if several of the people I met during my experience and was awestruck by end up changing the world one day, maybe sooner than I can imagine.

Since then, I did research junior year, but didn’t find success at my school fair. I also judged my school fair my senior year of high school and mentored a group from my school. They won first place at my school, placed at regionals, and went to MSSEF, although they did not place. I’m still extremely proud of their hard work.

I’ve been invited back by MSSEF to judge their fair once I graduate from NYU, which I will. Science fairs are a part of me now!

Stay tuned for my next post – which will present my experience in photographs! Thanks for visiting!

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