International STEM science fair goes virtual due to pandemic

The show must go on and organizers have pulled out all the stops for ISEF 2020. The 5-day virtual event runs through May 22.

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For the last 70 years, the Society for Science & the Public and its partners have presented the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). The event exists as the world's largest science fair, showcasing thousands of high school students and STEM projects from around the globe. However, this year, for the first time in the organization's history, the ISEF is being hosted virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. The five-day event kicked off on Monday, May 18, with presentations, panel discussions, and more planned through Friday, May 22.

In a matter of weeks, the organizers were tasked with the herculean challenge of transforming a global science fair, typically known for visual aids and overall immersive experience, into a fully virtual platform for students and attendees. No sweat, right? We spoke with the president and CEO of the society, Maya Ajmera, about the massive concerted effort and challenges surrounding the 2020 Virtual Regeneron ISEF.

"It's all new. It's all a big experiment. There are a couple of things. One is, at the beginning, is trying to figure out the platform you wanted to use. What's the platform you want to use for everyone around the world to be able to have a great virtual experience? This isn't just a webinar with people on Zoom," Ajmera said.

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What does a virtual science fair look like?

We spent a portion of the afternoon, touring the virtual ISEF science fair and one thing is immediately evident: This definitely isn't a webinar on Zoom. Once registered, attendees are transported to a 6Connex digital lobby where they have full access to all aspects of the fair including the finalist exhibit hall, STEM Experiential Hall, and more. The mainstage grants access to all live panel discussions as well as past events. This makes it convenient to watch live events or tune in for recorded coverage later.

The STEM Experiential Hall includes a wide array of curated virtual happenings from innovative titans across STEM fields such as JPL, National Geographic, NOVA, and others. A click of the NASA portal, for example, leads to a tour of the Langley Research Center. The USGS section dives into an immersive "geonarrative" exhibit.

The unofficial "Olympics" of science fairs

The very notion of a science fair may conjure up cliche images of a vinegar and baking soda volcano or maybe a fully functioning popsicle stick windmill. That said, it's the overall scale and sophistication of the STEM projects that set the ISEF apart. In fact, about a quarter of the students who present at ISEF are patented or patent-ready, according to Ajmera. Historically, there's a lot of money up for grabs with awards and cash prizes totaling $5 million for winners. As a result, ISEF serves as a platform and springboard for top STEM students to showcase their talents and prepare them for their career pursuits.

"We're not legally able to say this, but we consider it like the Olympics of science competitions," Ajmera said.


IMAGE: Chris Ayers/Society for Science & the Public

One of the biggest differences between the 2020 ISEF and past events is that there will be no formal judging or prizes this time around. The coronavirus pandemic disrupted the traditional affiliated fair systems and not all students were allowed to compete. Although there is a silver lining with the virtual variant.

"This is now open to all young people who are STEM enthusiasts and who dream of becoming scientists or engineers. So there's a real inclusion and equity aspect to this, as well," Ajmera said.

As of Monday night, there were 13,000 registered attendees participating from more than 100 nations, territories, and regions around the globe, according to ISEF representatives.

Past winners and project development

In 2017, Amber Yang took home several prizes at ISEF. Yang developed a software program that leveraged machine learning to predict the trajectory of space debris in orbit around Earth. The project by no means concluded after the ISEF closing ceremonies.

"When I came to college, I didn't want the ISEF project to go to waste. So I actually incorporated a startup and I started working with a few satellite companies where they were giving me their data and I was basically using it to predict collisions for them," Yang said.

The immediate networking capabilities and exposure to top STEM universities are some of the more apparent benefits of the annual event. However, there are other ancillary rewards and empowerment for participating students.

"You've heard a lot of stigma against young people being able to actually have the technical knowledge to go out and change things and make change in the world. But the science fair gave me a lot of confidence to actually feel like what I was doing was important," Yang said.

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IMAGE: Chris Ayers/Society for Science & the Public

It's interesting to look back through the catalog of previous winners and see how these projects have progressed in the years since ISEF. Sometimes these undertakings evolve into startups, other times, these projects prove to be immediately invaluable in ways no one could've predicted.

"In 2015, I worked on stopping airborne disease transmission in commercial aircraft — something that as you can imagine, is quite topical these days," explained Raymond Wang, a previous ISEF Best of Category Award winner who studied computer science and economics at Harvard.

At the time, the Ebola outbreak was developing in clusters around the globe. Fast forward a mere five years and this research is being harnessed to combat the spread of a modern plague.

"Since the pandemic began, we have entered into agreements with major aerospace companies to fast-track commercialization efforts, with the goal of getting these airflow modifications in aircraft as quickly as the certification system allows, to combat COVID19 and restore future confidence in air travel," Wang said. 

Innovating with an eye toward the future

For now, there's no telling when a viable coronavirus vaccine or cocktail of drugs will be available. Currently, organizers are using this year's event as a live test  in case next year's ISEF will also need to be held virtually.

"We have to still continue this work for young people, regardless. And so why not start it now, see what works, what we can improve, and if we have to go back to this next year or in another competition, then we know how to do it and we know the kinds of things that work and don't work," Ajmera said.

 As the pandemic continues, Ajmera feels as though it could inspire a generation of STEM students.

"You see a lot of students take on a problem that's close to them and then try to create a solution to that problem," Ajmera said.

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IMAGE: Chris Ayers/Society for Science & the Public