The most important things I learned from competing in science fairs had nothing to do with physics or even academics. My main takeaways were actually related to business -- in particular, sales and marketing.
Two science teachers at my high school (Mr. Andrzejewski & Dr. Sisk) ran a research class that helped students connect with local university labs for science fair projects. I got the opportunity to work on two projects:
- 2013-14: experimentally assessing the performance of materials to improve optical data transmission within a particle detector at CERN (poster)
- 2012-13: creating a material to improve acoustic data transmission within a dark matter detector at Fermilab (poster)
Looking back, the most important things I learned from these projects had nothing to do with physics or even academics. My main takeaways (realized years later) were actually related to business – in particular, sales and marketing.
The #1 most important thing I learned was how to put myself out there and find opportunities.
In Mr. A and Dr. Sisk’s class, there were high expectations with little hand-holding: students had to cold-email professors, schedule meetings with positive respondents, match up with a professor whose laboratory needs could be turned into a science project, execute the project within 6 months, and then present the results at science fairs across the state.
The #2 most important lesson I learned was that, broadly speaking, if you want people to get excited about something, you have to give them a storyline.
While my 2012-13 project suffered from technical issues, it had a great storyline: I created a material that had the opposite acoustic property as intended, but could (by some stroke of luck) be used in a different way to still achieve the goal of improving the detector. It was like a superhero movie where the hero gets beaten within an inch of their life but somehow, at the last minute, still finds a way to save themself and the rest of the world from sure annihilation.
The following year (2013-14), I worked extra hard to make a technically solid project – but everything went so smoothly that there was no storyline. It’s like the superhero shows up, helps secure a wobbly bridge, and leaves. Movie over.
Guess which project ended up going all the way to internationals? The 2012-13 one. On the other hand, 2013-14 didn’t even make it past regionals, even though no judge had a single criticism and multiple stated that it was one of the most “professional” or “well-done” projects there. What they didn’t say is that it just wasn’t exciting.