Tips on Independent Research for Qualifying and Winning at Intel ISEF
The International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) is one of the best experiences that science-oriented high school students can have, and ISEF was a factor of why I currently attend Caltech.
I participated in ISEF every year between 2018 to 2021 and met countless students from Norway to Japan. As a result, I saw thousands of posters and have a good understanding of what projects make it to the international stage.
In high school, I fabricated supercapacitors in the car garage with materials I bought from Russia. I always had a notion that science fair projects should be done individually because it’s high school, not college. There is merit to doing “garage projects” because you truly get a sense of freedom and pride from your work.
As I see that more and more students look towards the comfort of joining a research team instead of starting their own, I fear the science fair might turn into a dull research conference. There is a distinct difference between “science fair” and “conference” in that science fair contains naive science ideas, stupid errors, countless mistakes, etc. Yes, Perfect can be boring. I want to see more independent projects qualify to ISEF, but because science fair is a competition. Self-made projects will face professor-mentored projects and usually lose. So, here is the best I can do to help: write about personal tips.
What Field Should I Research?
Choosing the right field of research is like choosing the best car you can drive. Can you handle driving a truck or a Prius? Try to think of a science class or a topic that you not only enjoyed, but found it easy to learn.
The reason why I recommend you choose a project in you preferrable fields is the extensive learning required to do research. Think of a science field as a snowflake. You have been studying the overall shpae of the shape in high school. Performing research is like studying an edge of the snowflake, which will be more difficult to learn. That point may have not been discovered yet.
I should point out here that my advice should be taken lightly. My strong field is physics, but my research projects in high school were in electrochemistry.
I will divide the scientific fields into 6 broad but common categories: medical, biology, programming, engineering, physics/mathematics, and energy.
Medical: This is arguably the hardest topic to research if you are doing it by yourself. When doing medical research, finding data is either dangerous or expensive. Science fair also requires strict safety regulation and ethical research and most likely, you will need a supervisor when doing medical research. If you live near a university, try to contact professors for assistance. I would not recommend you to go into this field, especially if it is your first time doing a science fair project.
Biology: Like the medical field, good biology projects need much access to university-level equipment. It is easy to start a biology project, but it is difficult to finish with promising results. There are, however, exceptions. If you live near a farm, or rural area, try to see what grows near you. Contact a local farmer and see if there are challenges that he/she faces. Remember, projects that help your local area is a major (perhaps the biggest) boost to the competition.
Note: Medical and biology projects need to be done carefully because of safety matters. Some judges will undermine your contribution to the research due to the natural complexity of research in these areas. I wrote earlier that self-done projects are my favorites, but keep in mind that you need to do certain kinds of research in a proper setting to achieve a safe and accurate result. It is more impressive when the project is done individually, but that cannot always be the case.
Programming: CS projects are the most common choice for high school students. It is the easiest to start and requires minimum materials, usually just a computer (also, CS is really popular right now). However, as selection to higher-level competitions is determined by certain numbers of projects in each category, you will face more competition. It won’t be difficult seeing high school projects that beget AI and applications to neuroscience and biology in ISEF.
Engineering: If you like to cut, solder, and even weld; if you know how to use CAD or own a 3D printer; if you are creative and full of random product ideas, this is the field for you. Learn the general knowledge of starting a startup (design process, prototypes, etc), and you will produce a successful engineering project.
Physics/Mathematics: If you are a math wizard, then this topic is for you. This category is where you need the most background education since physics and mathematics build on top of others. Successful physics topics tend to be in astrophysics and quantum physics, and most math projects reach levels of graduate research studies. However, there are sub-branches of physics that are interdisciplinary with other science fields (aka easier to start). Geophysics is a really fun field to explore, but the field is barely looked at.
Energy: This category requires the knowledge of multiple scientific field, which give advantage to people who are well-rounded in all science branches. Chemistry and physics can both be used for energy development and energy harvesting.
Find Your Project
There are certain methods that I have used, which were successful. There are also certain methods that I have used, which failed. Selecting your project is the first step to the long journey which will influence not only the success of your project but also your college major. First, let us go over what not to do.
Do not search for science fair ideas
There are some websites that will give you ideas on what to do for your science fair. In 8th grade, I chose my project in one of these websites (a project in advanced level), and guess what? It didn’t even make it to state.
The problem with these websites is that not only do they give you the idea, they also give you the materials, procedures, data, and conclusion. If you know what the result will be, you are inclined to tweak some experiments to match the ones on the website. Because you are also copying the entire project, there is no creativity. There are no aspiring reasons why you chose this project. Also, good science fair projects do not get shared online. Only the ones that showed mediocre results are shared.
Here is what you need to do. If you live in a region with special conditions (weather, bay, etc.) look for local problems that affect the environment and the ecosystem. Contact local workers who work in region-related jobs. If you live in a city, look at the problems with traffics, pollution, and energy. Your project should have some local connection to your environment. Local projects are more successful because you are more passionate about them.
Top Down Approach
This method is very helpful to specify your research. Remember the snowflake analysis? Let us apply it now.
Above is a simple example using global warming. As we analyze the causation of problems and narrow them down, we see the problems that can be easier to fix. Instead of trying to fix the global warming problem, it would be easier to fix the electricity problem.
It is best to narrow down the problem statement as much as possible to have a clear plan of the research. Once you are done, look at the solutions to minor problems. Let us go over finding a solution with the previous example.
What can we do to reduce the number of gasoline vehicles? There are several methods. We can make better mass transportation in cities. We can increase the number of electric vehicles. When you found some solutions, look at the reason why the solution cannot be implemented at this current moment. In electric vehicles, current batteries are still very expensive to manufacture, and their lifetime is relatively short. If interested, you can stop here and look at the literature on methods to improve battery performance.
This is a simple one. We all know that using renewable energy sources reduces the emission level. Several projects can be produced from this problem such as optimizing wind turbine wing, finding unexplored methods for energy harvesting, and studying safer methods to handle chemical waste from nuclear power.
What can we do to stop the increase in mass agriculture? The trend right now is improving urban farming, such as improving indoor vertical farming and hydroponics system.
Similar to electricity, reducing the use of coal industries and an increase in energy harvesting from renewable sources. As we analyze global warming to sub-problems, I see that most improvements can be made in the energy category. This is how I have come up with my energy project, which has qualified and won in ISEF. Finding a project that is related to global warnings is a big plus because it is very RELEVANT right now.
OK. So have may have found a problem you want to solve. Should you go straight to your hypothesis? Before starting your project, it is important to look at previous research and their results. In research, this is called literature review.
Let us say you want to do a project in robotics. The next step is to find scientific journals that relate to your interest and find different works. Unfortunately, a lot of online journals are not accessible, so you will need to strategy to get behind the door.
1. Find the journal you like.
2. Search up any keywords that interest you (Ex. Drone).
3. Look at some papers that interest you.
4. Look at the abstract of the paper to determine the difficulty of the paper.
5. If you have found a paper that you are really interested in, copy the title, and paste on Google, and add the word “pdf” at the end of the title.
The “illegal way”
1. Use sci-hub.
What you are doing is looking at similar researches online that are open access. I guarantee you that there are at least 3 to 10 similar papers online. Start reading the paper. Look at the impact, complexity, and time consumption of the paper. The thing to take away from reading papers is not their methodology, but rather the structure of the research. Do not look at specific steps that they used to achieve their goal but look at how they produced their solution on a broad scale. In other words, do not copy the research, but learn from their problem-solving skills.
Designing Your Project
The structure of your science fair can be divided into two types, engineering design process and laboratory finding. I would strongly recommend you use the first choice. In the engineering design process, you find the problem, develop prototype, and analyze the prototype. You become an inventor to solve whatever problem you want to solve.
For example, if you want to optimize wind turbine, you can make a prototype and compare to a traditional wind turbine in energy efficiency, cost, etc. Based on my experiences in several science fair competitions, projects that have the engineering design process tends to win more awards and advance to higher-level competitions. This is because the judges prefer looking at projects with models and prototypes
Hopefully, this gave you some ideas on how to start your project. Once you start, there will be obstacles in the way, but there will also be solutions. Do not expect your project to go as you planned. The materials might change, the procedures may get tweaked, and your hypothesis and finding results may not match. The important thing is that you do the project and you jump over barriers. In my experience, creativity is produced when you are stuck at some point.
When doing your project, remember…
Level: This is the most important aspect of your project. No matter how much or how hard you try, if the research is not good, then the possibility of ISEF will be slim. This is the shortest tip because it’s just that simple. So for example, making a battery won’t do you any good, especially if the performance is about the same as commercially available batteries. Target on environmental or cost factor and it will give you a large boost during judging.
Standing Out: You will not go to ISEF from remaking something that had obviously been made before. If you have done high school science fair or scientific research, you should know the phase of research, where you look online for weeks and even months. Of course, by doing this, it is very likely that you will get direct inspirations or very similar ideas. I know this is especially hard for biology and chemical projects since there isn’t much of creativity involved (compare to engineering projects) and literally all of the things that you have ever thought of have been done before. Know that even winning projects of ISEF are not totally new ideas. Most of it has been done in a similar manner by various colleges. However, I must say that there are small but significant things that the winning students have researched or made, which differentiate them from just the finalists. I have to say that this is the most difficult things to experience during the project period, however, it is the most rewarding because it forces you to see new aspects and try novel things.
Independence: If your project is really advanced, which it should be if you are aiming for ISEF, during presentations, most of the judges will think that someone else did most of the research for you. This can result in bad cases if you don’t explain explicitly what you did or what someone else did, especially when a judge doesn’t really understand what you researched. For me, I have gotten more comfortable with questions relating to assistance, due to experiences. The best thing to do is to briefly describe your parents in a way, therefore the judges know that they are not experts on your project, but with a very natural flow from your introduction. For example, my project in 10th grade was related to energy source development and I briefly described my dad during why I came up with the idea. The exact words that I said were, “I found a problem in energy storing in a field that I feel most passionate about: engineering. As I studied higher level of engineering, thanks to my dad being in that career in my entire life, I found that it has its limitations when it comes to energy storage.” This may seem really silly, but during rare occasions it really does help.
Tryhard: As much as the level of the project will be considered, how much you have worked and cared for your project will leave a remark on the judges. I will give you an example with my 9th-grade science fair. When looking back, I will tell you that my project was definitely not the most advanced project in the state fair. I barely knew the physics of what I was doing and my project did not have solid background supports. I realized this in regionals, after not making into 2 ISEF finalist spot. So in the state fair, instead of focusing on the majority of my speech about my applications and my conclusion, I focused my presentation on the inspirations and the processes that I had with the project. I could feel that some of the judges were not convinced, however, I think it was because I showed how much I worked for my project, I was able to get the spot for ISEF in state. Now this is an extreme case and most judges probably will favor level over dedication, however, it does have a considerable amount of effect.