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How to Run a Virtual Science Fair

The Garage Experience (Gx) science fair is an Academy tradition. Typically, each student has a table to display their hard-built project in a space designed to attract attention, and people new to and familiar with their projects approach with curiosity and a critical eye. Every year before their senior Gx projects Academy students leverage the science fair to make their pitch while also collecting real-time valuable feedback. The fair also typically occurs just a few weeks before the student’s final presentations. That’s why when COVID-19 put a pause on large events and social gatherings, it did little to stop the Academy from pivoting and putting on a different kind of affair.

Featuring 19 student projects, faculty and guests both from USC and across various industries, the Academy’s science fair went virtual this year and, in the process, has become a model for future workshops. By combining the benefits of in-person networking with the convenience that remote technologies, this year’s virtual fair was just as (if not more) exciting and useful than a traditional one. The success of the Academy’s virtual science fair is not only an example of how students can deliver impressive, professional-level pitches via social distancing, but also a template for educators who want to create engaging community-focused programming.

Curious on how it all went down? Professor Matthew Manos provides some tips and tricks for students, and advice on what you’ll want to keep in mind as an educator if you want to run a virtual science fair of your own!

TIPS for Students

● Keep it conversational. Just like any science fair, people come and go at random times, including when you’re in the middle of your pitch. Be sure to welcome new people into your conversations.
● Consider having a “poster board” slide. By having one single slide that serves as a general overview of key items for your project, people that enter at odd times can have something to look at to get up to speed on what you’re up to without interrupting.
● Timing. This will be sporadic. There will not be set rotation times due to people arriving at the fair at a wide range of times depending on their schedule. We are assuming, though, that your average conversation will be three to five minutes.
● Note-taking. Be sure to capture the conversations the best you can. That can be through note-taking, screen recording, etc. Zoom may not necessarily allow for you to record on your end, so this is something to have a backup plan for.
● What do you want to learn? In addition to getting general feedback on your idea, come to the science fair with some key questions that you’re hoping to get answers to. This could be presenting different future feature concepts for feedback, doing some play testing or user testing, showcasing branding options, etc.
● Do your best not to wear pajamas…

TRICKS for Educators

● While this science fair was held in Zoom, educators can host a science fair using any video conferencing tool, as long as it includes the ability to have breakout groups. The Academy’s fair lasted a total of 90 minutes.
● Share a rundown on the format of the fair prior to the event itself. This will reduce the likelihood of confusion and cut down on wasted time.
● Be online early. Doing anything virtually can often lead to unforeseen bugs, 30 minutes of prep can allow time to sort out any issues.
● If possible, have a virtual “doorman” reviewing and checking off guests as they sign into the meeting. This will streamline the process while also giving you an extra wall of security for possible trolls or uninvited guests.

As industry guests arrived in the main room, they were quickly briefed on the process for the fair by Academy faculty before being sent off into a random breakout room to meet with the students. Guests were informed that the duration of time spent with each team would be at their own discretion. Once they were done with a team, they’d come back to the main room, and be assigned to a new team to review. On average, each guest met with five to seven teams over the course of the 90 minutes.

Overall, the virtual science fair was a big success! Students enjoyed sharing their work with people completely unfamiliar with what they’ve been up to while appreciating the pointed feedback they received. In addition, the fair allowed students to practice their pitch over and over again. The repetitive nature of this virtual format made it possible to immediately iterate and a/b test messaging. Finally, for many students, creating a single slide (virtual science fair poster board), was an empowering challenge in concise messaging.

Based on the success of the virtual science fair, social distancing orders or not, Academy faculty intend on continuing to leverage this format in the senior-level Garage Experience course. We hope this helps anyone aspiring to lead a similar virtual event!

Read the USC News Story here.