Canceled. Postponed indefinitely. Moved to the fall. Moved to next year.
Public gatherings across the country have almost universally been placed in one of those categories.
But EKU’s Dr. Jason Marion and June Settle, who run Kentucky’s student science fair, decided that, no, they would not cancel, postpone or move to the fall the 18th annual Kentucky Science and Engineering Fair (KY-SEF), held annually at Alumni Coliseum.
This year the show would go on remotely, via technology. The same, but different.
“These students have worked very hard on their projects—some of them for at least a year,” said Settle, who volunteers her time as executive director of the fair. She and Marion wanted to give an online fair their best shot.
“There is so much uncertainty and upheaval right now with COVID-19. It’s the least we could do to try to continue with the science fair given the technology we have available. After all, this is a Science & Engineering Fair!” she said.
The idea to make KY-SEF virtual began to germinate around spring break.
“There are a handful of science- and engineering competitions that have occurred virtually, but I’m not aware of anything like this event,” Marion said. “Can we do a virtual fair? Absolutely! Our partners at Lousiville-based STEM Wizard helped organized a virtual fair just under two weeks ago for the duPont Manual/Meyzeek Regional Fair.”
They decided they could pull it off.
Zoom, an online meeting app and software that has become the lifeblood of human virtual interaction for millions in just a matter of a few weeks, will be the conduit for the fair. STEM Wizard, a science fair management software, will organize the fair. Entries have already been uploaded and judging will occur interactively with each individual project. During the fair, 21 middle school categories and 21 high school categories will be presented and judged simultaneously in 42 unique Zoom virtual spaces. Each project will have a unique time to login into their respective category and division, and the lead judge will be able to invite the students to begin their presentation.
The winning projects from each category will compete for Best-of-Fair awards for high school and middle school for the life sciences and physical sciences. The awards ceremony will air via the STEM Wizard Facebook page live stream on Saturday March 28 at 7 p.m.
Beyond the logistical challenges presented by organizing a fair into a completely online event in three weeks, there is the challenge of getting participants to change their mindset. “From my perspective, the biggest challenge has been to help people think a bit differently about how we do a Science Fair,” said Settle.
The nerves about making it work are there, too. Marion’s first email to the competitors and judges said, “We are actively working towards our mission by hosting our first annual statewide competition in an entirely virtual format. Although our current global situation presents some unique challenges in the lives of many, please know we are anxious and curious to see what kind of virtual experience we will be able to create.”
There are drawbacks. The event brings 1,000 people to Richmond to stay in hotels and eat at local restaurants, that won’t be here this year. But the biggest loss is the social interaction that can’t be replicated in a virtual world.
“We are looking towards re-evaluating this question after this year’s fair. Myself, and a lot of our fair board members (and probably judges too), truly appreciate the time together and seeing non-verbal communication. We will get some of that through this virtual event, but we shall see (if it’s something akin to being there in person),” Marion said.
The KY-SEF is not a fair for saltwater tornadoes and paper mache’ volcanoes. Past alumni have gone on to brilliant careers in science, earning scholarships and prize money.
Rachel Seevers won one of four Grand Awards at the International Science & Engineering Fair (I-SEF) and won $50,000 from the Intel Foundation for her underwater propulsion device that mimics jellyfish movement that would allow greater exploration of the world’s oceans: see link.
And Mukund Venkatakrishnan won first prize at this fair in 2016 and was featured all over the world for his development of a low-cost hearing aid.
“We have a great team, we’ve worked together several years, we have so much support from colleagues, families, and the students themselves. It’s going to be exciting!” said Settle.
You can look for the fair award’s live stream link during the day on Saturday, March 28 at http://kysciencefair.org/schedule/.