Regulators and Enforcers

As background for the final project violations posted last night at 9:30 and the violation clearance taking place this morning from 7 to 10 a.m., we've interviewed Paula Johnson from the Scientific Review Committee (SRC) and John Cole from Display & Safety about why all those pesky rules and regulations are so important, and what typically happens in the last-minute rush to ensure projects with violations will qualify. Read on to get the scoop on the most common violations, how to avoid any trouble with your project, and some hair-raising anecdotes from Fairs past.

Paula Johnson, Scientific Review Committee

Q: Could you tell us who you are and how you came to be involved with SRC?

A: I'm Dr. Paula Johnson. I'm a research veterinarian from Tucson, Arizona, and I've been involved with SRC for seven years; science fairs a lot longer. I've been involved with ISEF for twelve years, and a lot longer than that with our regional fair.

Q: What's the purpose and importance of SRC?

A: The Scientific Review Committee is here to set the rules and make sure that the rules are followed so that the playing field for competition is fair, and that we're following the appropriate guidlines for doing research, so that kids aren't doing things that are unsafe for themselves or their subjects, whether they're humans or animals. We make sure that research is done appropriately and safely, and we also make sure students have all their ducks in a row, that their paperwork is complete, so that during judging, judges can take a look at that project and know that everything is done appropriately.

Q: What are the most common SRC violations?

A: Incomplete forms, easily. Students sometimes don't answer all the questions, so we have to send them back to say, "Complete this so we can figure out what was going on, who really did what, and what the research plan was." It's very important for students to keep a detailed research plan so we can go back and understand what they were doing.

Q: Do some kinds of projects raise more 'red flags' than others?

A: Absolutely. For instance, there are certain protected groups: pregnant women, children, prisoners, the elderly. Those are the kinds of people who are protected. You have to take extra precautions to ensure that whatever they are going to be involved with in a study is appropriate. Same with animals. Some studies can be done in the school -- you can do a nutritional study or you can observe animals, for instance. That's okay. You can do it in the home or in the field or in a farm. But let's say you're going to be using tissue from an animal and it has to be euthanized to get that tissue. In that case, it has to be done at a research institution. Students are not allowed to euthanize animals. So those kinds of things have to be done with appropriate oversight and procedures.

Q: Are there usually a few inevitable disqualifications at each fair?

A: Every year there are a few projects that didn't follow the rules during their research, and sometimes nothing can be done to fix them. There are some things we can fix, and there are other things that we simply can't fix, and it's unfortunate when it happens. There are always one or two at each fair. Also, we have a category called "guest exhibitors." These are projects that didn't have any major violations: They didn't do animal or human research that was inappropriate or grow dangerous bacteria at home, nothing like that. Instead, it's some more innocuous violation of the rules that doesn't allow them to compete -- perhaps they're underage, or there were too many members of a team project, or the research was too old (it has to be in the last 12 months). Those are the kinds of projects that can be guest exhibitors; there's nothing wrong, they did great research, they just didn't fit the rules for this competition.

Q: So, they're on display, but they're not being judged?

A: That's right, they're not being judged. Just to ensure that the playing field is even.

Q: Any advice for students hoping to avoid any SRC troubles with their future projects?

A: Please, read the rule book before you start your project! It's available online. If you have questions, you can email questions to us directly at SRC. You can send us an email and ask us questions so we can clarify if it will be allowed or not, and what would need to be done to get the project to fit into the rules and regulations. Ask those questions before you start the project!

John Cole, Display & Safety

Q: Who are you, and how are you involved with Display & Safety at Intel ISEF?

A: My name is John Cole. I've worked Display & Safety probably 19 years now. I was formerly a regional fair director at a college in West Virginia, and that's how I became involved with all this. I've been the head of Display & Safety for about two and a half years.

Q: What are the differences between Display & Safety and SRC?

A: Our side of things deals mainly with the setup of projects: making sure that they adhere to all the right regulations. We're also enforcers for SRC rules as well as display & safety rules for the floor. We deal with how students can most effectively display their project while abiding by the rules that regard that presentation, and ensuring a safe environment for all the visitors that come in to the exhibit hall. Because we have a lot of aisle exhibits where people can just reach over and touch things, and therefore we have to be very careful about contaminants and sharp objects and fire situations. We also don't want to overload the electrical system or have things explode.

Q: Let's talk about the "display" side of your work. What does that entail?

A: Well, we try to make it a level playing field for everyone. So we rule out things like endorsements, or anything that would smack of self-promotion of the project to try to influence the judges. We rule out anything that would influence their judgment somehow, like a company logo, a national flag. All those things are removed from projects because the contest isn't which country you're from, it's the quality of your project. We also have to be careful with how certain things like animal research are displayed. Really, we're one of the last vestiges of student research. We're the largest fair in the world in terms of allowing and promoting animal research by students with cells or tissues. So, it is a very limited kind of research, but it gives students an opportunity to see what this research is like, which is important. We want to make sure that when they display their efforts they do it in a way that is appropriate. So there are very specific guidelines. You can only post certain kinds of pictures, for example.

Q: What about the "safety" side of things?

A: You know, some students may be very good in the laboratory, but they're not very good architects. In years past, students didn't use the commercial backboards, you know. They built their own, and they'd come up with something that's wobbly and unstable, and by the end of the day it would be lying out in the aisle. Sometimes there are material issues. In engineering, they like to use a lot of metallic boards, and they'll take sheet metal and form it and of course it's sharp on the end -- if you run your fingers up the side of it, you'll slice your hand open. There are school kids coming in here -- we can't have that.

Also, heavy projects collapse at times. For example, we had an issue we discovered here when students were setting up the projects that the decorators hadn't made sure the table legs were secured. We had some projects just collapse, because when the students put a hundred pounds on top of the table the legs just folded in and it went down.

Q: Ouch. What other colorful stories do you have from your years with Display and Safety?

A: There are a lot of science competitions around the world, and the rules are different at all the events, so sometimes we have international students who are allowed to display the actual products of their research. For example, we had an insect repellent once that was made from some floral plant, I can't remember the name of it now, but it was from an Asian country, and they brought vials of it over here, and it was all packed. Of course, we would have never let them display it, but we didn't know there were broken vials in the container when we opened it, and the essence was so overwhelming it sent one of our volunteers to the hospital with an allergic reaction. He picked up the bottle and it just enveloped him. He immediately started to break out, couldn't breathe. So that's what happens sometimes.

Q: Allergic reactions aren't good. What about things that we're all "allergic" to, like say... Fires and explosions?

A: Ha. Well, we had a Russian student a couple of years ago who had created a new flame using, I think it was hydrogen. We had decided to let him demonstrate it during judging, because the pictures he had submitted showed a pure white flame about three inches high. Well, what he didn't tell us was that it would arc about six feet when he fed the hydrogen in. We all thought we'd been singed. I was standing there watching the project, and it was a huge noise when it went off, and then of course it settled down into a nice little flame, but we thought it was going to take us all in. Yeah, I got yelled at about that! So I'm more careful about things like that these days.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the final violations list?

A: This year we're going to have a much larger posting, because the weather has not cooperated with the students flying in, so we have a contingent of about 35 students who are arriving late to the fair tomorrow. So they'll be on the violation list automatically since their projects aren't set up, which will swell it dramatically. In the past we've usually gotten it down to, last year I think we had nineteen out of 1209 projects. Now that doesn't mean there weren't 150-200 violations before that, but they were all simple things that, once the student saw the violation forms, he or she came in and got it corrected. And even the nineteen were simple ones, because we walked the floors when they were setting up projects and would see projects with problems, and we'd try to head those off. Sometimes students are resistant, but often it's just a matter of saying, "Look, if you don't take this down, you aren't going to qualify." And of course you want to qualify. But in general they're pretty understanding, and they'll change things, particularly since we provide materials that will help them reduce the size or cover the objectionable object.

Q: Do you think the students see Display & Safety more as a boogieman or a guardian angel?

A: We have worked very hard to change that image. I think five years ago that is the way we were looked at. We were seen as troublesome to parents and teachers and students. But now they look at us as their friends. We've gotten very good ratings the last couple of years, and I hope that will happen again this year. We've had some tough situations with projects, but the parents or teachers have always come by later to thank us and let us know they understand.

Q: Tough situations?

A: Every year there are. They usually aren't on our side; they're usually with SRC. Usually it's with kill rate of animals. I had a student who came to the international fair, and she ended up winning 2nd prize for a rat project where she had tested weight loss pills. None of her rats died, but she was warned when it had to go through scientific review that she really needed more rats. She only had three, they said she needed six. Because the chances of her losing one or two were great. She said she had stopped the experiment the minute she saw any shift in the rats' physical well-being, but that could have all turned sour if all three of them had died. She would have been disqualified even though she had good research. That's SRC stuff. It's very unusual for a student to be disqualified based on display or safety issues.

Q: Any tips for future participants?

They need to start thinking about display very early, and to read the rules. Quite honestly, teachers, they're so caught up in the experiment side, they don't worry about the display side and the safety side, so they simply ignore the dimensions. That's one of the biggest problems we run into. Students come here with oversize projects, and you know, it's very hard when something is so well-constructed to cut eight inches off it, say. Or when you spend $300 to have a chart or something printed, and it's way too long. What do you cut off?

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