What it’s like to compete in the science fair ‘Olympics’

Four recent alumni of the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair share their experiences

students from around the world stand on a stage at ISEF holding posters representing their countries

The International Science and Engineering Fair is the world’s premier STEM competition for high schoolers.

Chris Ayers/Society for Science

Winning an award is nice, of course, but that’s only a small reason to do a science fair project. There’s learning about science, how to conduct an experiment and working with others to achieve a goal. And competing itself is its own reward, say alumni of the International Science and Engineering Fair, or ISEF.

This week, more than 1,700 teens have gathered online and in Atlanta, Ga., for the 2022 Regeneron ISEF. These high-school students have competed in science fairs across the globe for the right to show off their work. Now they’re vying for nearly $8 million in scholarships and other prizes. (This annual competition is held by the Society for Science, which also publishes Science News for Students.)

To get a bit of insight into the ISEF experience, Science News for Students spoke with four recent competitors. Here’s what they said about competing in the so-called Olympics of science fairs.

Joshua Jacob

Jacob competed in ISEF from 2015 to 2018. For his projects, he revamped a 3-D printer to print with multiple materials and optimized inks to print electronics and solar cells. He now works at the 3-D printing company Inkbit, which is based in Medford, Mass.

How would you describe ISEF?

“I’d definitely compare it to the Olympics of science fair,” Jacob says. But it’s “not just a science fair,” he adds. “It’s an incredible social experience for like-minded high schoolers who are interested in science research.” The week of ISEF is full of opportunities to socialize — such as a dance party and a massive pin exchange between competitors. “You get to meet people from all over, Jacob says. “You have a lot of fun just going to different activities and exploring interests and having interesting conversations with other people your age.”

What makes a good science fair project?

“One of the biggest things is just picking a topic that you find interesting,” Jacob says. “Some students will try to do something that they think will win. And it makes it harder to put in a lot of work in time, if your heart’s not in it.” Some of the best projects, he adds, involve combining multiple interests.

Any advice for science fair newbies?

“Staying on top of the news,” Jacob says. “Our middle school teacher showed us Science News and a couple of other websites that he just suggested reading every day, so that it got your brain thinking about: What do we know in science? And what don’t we know? And then, finding the middle ground of what we do know and what we don’t know to create your own project.”

Camila Rimoldi Ibanez

Rimoldi Ibanez competed in ISEF in 2018, 2019 and 2021. Her first projects investigated materials to limit radiation given off by smartphones. She then started studying how corals communicate through sound waves. Rimoldi Ibanez is currently a freshman at Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter.

What challenges did you face in your project?

a blond teenage girl smiles while standing in front of a trifold poster
Camila Rimoldi Ibanez’s first ISEF projects focused on reducing the radiation emitted by smartphones. She then shifted gears to study coral communication via sound waves. Courtesy of Camila Rimoldi Ibanez

When she first started studying corals, Rimoldi Ibanez tried growing them at home. “It’s the hardest thing ever!” she says. “I don’t recommend it.” For one thing, “the corals were very sensitive.” Also, creating a realistic ecosystem required filling the tank with fish, crabs and other creatures. “The crabs and the shrimp just went after every single fish,” she says. “But the bright side of that project was that I was able to see that there were some acoustical sounds being emitted from the corals.” The next year, Rimoldi Ibanez studied sound wave–related genes in corals at a research lab.

What was most memorable about ISEF?

“Becoming part of this community that is so welcoming and excited to get to know each other. That’s really, really cool,” Rimoldi Ibanez says. “I love a good dance party, and they do a really good job with the dance parties at ISEF.”

How has ISEF impacted your life?

“I was very shy, as a middle schooler and in elementary. Because, when I moved here from Argentina, I did not know English,” Rimoldi Ibanez says. But presenting at science fairs helped Rimoldi Ibanez gain confidence in talking to strangers. “At first, my face would get super red when they’d ask me a question,” she says. “But later I realized, well, hey. I’m the one who did all this work. I know all this information.” Wanting to enjoy the social events at ISEF pushed her to be more outgoing, too. “If you’re shy and standing back,” she says, “you’re not gonna get the same out of those events as someone who might be more confident.”

Norman Toro Vega

In 2016, Toro Vega competed in ISEF with a project that simulated radioactive decay. In 2017, he returned as part of a team that built a hydroelectric energy generator. Today, he’s a product manager at Apple in San Francisco, Calif.

What is it like working on a team, versus doing a solo project?

a young man wearing glasses and a blue shirt smiles while looking off-camera
Norman Toro Vega competed in ISEF in 2016 and 2017 with projects on radioactive decay and hydroelectric energy generation.Courtesy of Norman Toro Vega

“Working by yourself, you have the whole independence of leading a project,” Toro Vega says. “In a team, you have the opportunity to skill-share, divide the work.” Teamwork is also good prep for working in the real world, he says. “As a team, you actually learn how to communicate, manage deadlines, expectations between one another — and at the same time, learn from each other.” Plus, Toro Vega adds, joining forces with a friend can make doing a project more fun.

How has ISEF impacted your life?

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to study [in college],” Toro Vega says. “I knew I wanted to study STEM [science, technology, engineering and math], but going to ISEF and just walking around the computer science projects was like, ‘I want to do this in the future.’” Having high-school research experience was also “a huge bonus” for college applications, he says.

Any advice for science fair newbies?

“Just go for it,” Toro Vega says. “It might seem like it’s a huge road ahead. But the first step, the hardest step, is just starting.” If you’re unsure what topic to study, pick a few things that interest you and read about them online, he says. “See if there’s an issue that really calls out to you.” And don’t be afraid of failure, Toro Vega adds. “Science isn’t all about solutions that work. There are solutions that don’t work, and from that we actually learn.”

Clara Wagner

Wagner competed in ISEF from 2015 to 2017. She studied how to improve sporting helmets using inspiration from a woodpecker’s head. Wagner now teaches high school chemistry in Saginaw, Mich.

What challenges did you face in your project?

a smiling girl wearing a green graduation gown sits on a staircase outdoors
Clara Wagner, who competed in ISEF from 2015 to 2017, just graduated from college with a degree in biochemistry. She now teaches high school chemistry. Courtesy of Clara Wagner

“Every step in science fair will give you a different problem to solve,” Wagner says. For instance, “I tested my helmets using a testing rig that Virginia Tech designed based off of real player data, and I replicated it in my garage. It was, like, 12 feet tall, built by hand myself.” That took about three months, Wagner says. “And you don’t really get a lot of credit for all the hard work that you put into a project, not even the data you want to talk about.”

Any advice for science fair newbies?

“Any question that you can come up with about the world, in general, can become a science fair project,” Wagner says. “Keep asking questions. Be curious. And do it with a friend, if you really are discouraged about doing a project.”

How would you describe ISEF?

“I know a lot of people call it the Olympics of science fair, but it really is,” Wagner says. “And if you’re a math nerd and you do the probability of making it to the Olympics versus making it to science fair, it’s actually harder to make it to ISEF.”

What was most memorable about ISEF?

“When you first arrive to ISEF, you meet … students that are just like you, and you realize that you’re not alone,” Wagner says. “You now have friends across the entire globe that are participating in a similar experience. And obviously winning’s really nice and amazing and is an indescribable feeling. But the true prize is the experience itself.”

Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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