Regeneron ISEF: The Complete Guide to Competing and Winning
4 minute read
If there were an Olympics for STEM projects, the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) would be it. Its opening ceremony alone—a stadium full of 1800 screaming students from 75 countries—tells you this is no ordinary science fair.
Started in 1958, ISEF is the world's oldest and most prestigious pre-college science fair. No little blue ribbons here. Now sponsored by the biotech company Regeneron, ISEF’s top Innovator Award is $75,000. Finalists in 21 categories can win $3,000 (1st place), $1,500 (2nd place), $1,000 (3rd place), and $500 (4th place). Other awards include scholarships, internships, field trips, and lab equipment.
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You must be in high school and win at affiliated science fairs to compete at ISEF. These qualifying fairs occur from January to March in the U.S. and involve a few rounds (such as local, regional, and state). ISEF takes place in early May and lasts for a week. The 2023 ISEF will be held in Dallas, and the 2024 ISEF will be in Los Angeles. It’s been hosted in big cities nationwide, in Canada, in Puerto Rico, and, during the pandemic, virtually.
You can learn a lot about ISEF by watching the funny and moving documentary Science Fair and the award-winning film Inventing Tomorrow.
What makes a good project?
ISEF judges use a 100-point scale to grade each project, and the criteria consist of the following:
Originality and creativity (30 pts)
Fidelity to the process (30 pts)
The scientific method if it’s an experiment
The engineering goal if it’s a product
Thorough research and goal completion (15 pts)
Skills used to complete the project (15 pts)
Clarity (and evidence of proper understanding of the topic) (10 pts)
Grading works slightly differently if you work on a team project. (Up to 3 students can make up an ISEF team.) On team projects, judges take teamwork into account. Check out the judging guidelines for specific questions the judges consider while looking at your project.
Projects addressing significant real-world problems are the ones that stand out. Here are some subjects and challenges that inspired a few recent ISEF winners:
Electric cars: Can we create more sustainable electric vehicles that don’t require magnets made from rare-earth materials? (Robert Sansone)
Sports and medicine: Can we improve coaching and physical therapy remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic? (Michelle Hua)
Energy: What’s a cost-effective way to extract hydrogen from water and store it for clean energy production? (Abdullah Al-Ghamdi)
Immunology: Could we produce COVID-19 vaccines faster and cheaper? (Rishab Jain)
How to win!
ISEF winners share their keys to success in videos, podcasts, and blogs. We’ve compiled some of their best advice to help you create a winning science fair project.
Tip 1. Find a mentor.
ISEF winner Amber Hess thinks finding a good mentor is the most important thing you can do. A good mentor can help you find an original and compelling project topic and unpack complex concepts. They can also introduce you to new research, help you troubleshoot experiments, teach you better organization and presentation skills, work with you on priorities and time management, and encourage you when times get tough. Not sure where to find one? You can filter our mentor profiles based on your areas of interest. All of our mentors have exceptional academic backgrounds and teaching experience.
Tip 2. Find a passion project people can use.
Your enthusiasm for a topic helps you stick with the project. It also helps when it’s time to give your presentation. Judges (all people, really) prefer to listen to presenters who are excited about their research. If you can solve global warming, go for it, but the main thing is to pay attention to what you care about and see how you can apply that to the real world. ISEF winner Krithik Ramesh loves video games, and out of that love came a revolutionary surgical idea. To brainstorm possible subjects, have a look at the 21 ISEF categories.
Tip 3. Be original.
Your mentor can help you weed out what’s been done before, but make sure the idea comes from you. Keep at it, even if it’s an idea nobody else has tackled before. Your mentor can help you make a big idea more manageable.
Tip 4. See how the real science pros do it.
Be thorough in your research. Take the time to read articles in scientific journals related to what you’re researching or designing. Interview experts in the field. (Again, this is where a mentor comes in handy.) Read forums. Look at how the pros present their findings—their calculations, their graphs and charts, their formatting—and how they structure their experiments. See what’s out there. You want to be original, but to be original, you need to know what’s out there.
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Tip 5. Commit the time.
You’re allowed to spend up to a year working on your project. Most ISEF winners work on them during the summer, fall, and winter before the competition, devoting between 400-1600 hours. You need to allow for enough time for things to go wrong. And when (not if) they do go wrong, work through it. This leads us to…
Tip 6. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Sometimes mistakes can lead to discoveries that lead to winning projects, as was the case for ISEF winner J.C. ISEF winner Rishab Jain even encourages students to talk about their failures with the judges, who, it turns out, love to see students push past difficult challenges.
Tip 7. Use statistics wisely in your analysis.
Showing detailed error analysis elevates your project. Show how your predictions and results correlate and explain why there may be outliers. Detailed analysis shows that you are thinking like a professional.
Tip 8. Give a clear and concise presentation.
If you can talk and write about your project in a way that anybody can understand its importance, you’ve done your job. Visuals (such as drawings, photos, prototypes, and 3D models) can also help you break down complicated concepts into digestible chunks. ISEF Judge Travis Frey suggests practicing your presentation in front of people who are not scientists. (He used to practice in front of his parents.) He also offers that you should do as many science competitions as you can to prepare for questions from judges. ISEF finalist Ellen Xu came up with 3 explanations to fit how much time a judge would have with her: a quick 1-minute rundown, a 3-minute version, and a 10-minute full description. Rishab Jain advises against memorizing your presentation so that you can adapt quickly to whatever your judge is interested in. But it probably doesn’t hurt to have a quick way of introducing your project.
Tip 9. Make sure your project qualifies!
It would be terrible to do all that work and then discover that you can’t compete because of a simple technicality. ISEF provides a Rules Wizard to help you navigate all the paperwork you might need BEFORE you start. You should also read the International Rules. One rule, for example, is that your project boards and abstracts must be written in English. Finally, this list helps ensure you’re good to go and that you didn’t violate any of the safety protocols.
The more time you can devote to your project, the better.
A lot of ISEF winners spent a summer working on their projects.
The Polygence Program is a great way to structure 10 weeks of work with built-in milestones to ensure you make steady progress.
Most local science fairs are held at this time.
You must be a finalist in affiliated fairs to be eligible for ISEF.
There are generally about 3 rounds of competition (local, regional, and state) before you can progress to ISEF.
12 days after your final affiliated fair
Finalist questionnaire is due.
Abstract rewrite is due.
Presentation materials are due on ProjectBoard.
Phone/video interviews must be completed.
Safety inspections are due.
May 13-19, 2023
Regeneron ISEF 2023 in Dallas, TX
May 11-17, 2024
Regeneron ISEF 2024 in Los Angeles, CA
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