Google Science Fair - a new take on an old format

Sun, 2011-07-10 22:09 -- Reni Barlow

Exactly 6 months to the day after Google announced the Google Science Fair in New York City, the finals of the inaugural fair take place tomorrow at the Google campus in Mountain View, California. Like all things Google the goal was ambitious: register 10,000 science projects online from every corner of the planet and then narrow them down to 60 semi-finalists, and then just 15 finalists. Sounds easy - unless you've run a science fair or two.

Although they didn't quite hit their target for projects - the final count was about 7,500 - with groups of up to three permitted to enter, they did register 10,000 students, establishing the Google Science Fair as a serious new player in a realm dominated by the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, MILSET Expo Sciences International, and the many national fairs around the world.

Ascending the stairs just inside the Google building, en route to the final fair - the only part with an in-person component - you pass under a large scale model of the Virgin Galactic space plane that captured the X-Prize - perhaps one of the more ambitious "science projects" in recent history. Google lives and breathes innovation, so it's not surprising that they've applied that same spirit to their science fair.

While the online projects closely resemble those you'd find at traditional science fairs, for the final, Google has added a new spin. To begin with, no backboards - not even a poster. In fact they're prohibited. Everything is digital - and in a proprietary (but somewhat frustrating for the finalists) twist, everything must be presented using Google tools - the online apps that Google offers for free. No PowerPoint, or other non-Google apps allowed on the 32-inch LCD monitor adorning each of the 15 white display counters that glow a Google colour at the base, feature a glowing circle on the front with each competitor's first name, and come with a laptop computer to ensure that everyone is on a level playing field. Behind each display area there's a moderate-sized fabric bulletin board (that proves nearly impenetrable to thumbtacks), with a header of Lego baseplates, to display a bit about the student and his/her creativity. The idea of the bulletin board is to focus on the student and not so much on the project, though a few finalists can't resist posting a few project backboard elements.

During the event the finalists are encouraged to dress casually, in keeping with Google tradition, and all will be wearing Google Science Fair t-shirts during tomorrow's judging - again, an effort to level the playing field. The judging itself consists of a single 5-minute presentation followed by 8 minutes of questions - alone in a separate room in front of the full judging panel. The 13/14 year olds will be judged first, the 15/16 year olds next, and the 17/18 year olds last. By virtue of his age and last name, the lone Canadian, Chris Neilsen of Calgary, will be judged last of all - a position he's very pleased with. His slide show and demos are ready to go. There's a Lego Canadian flag, a poster showing where Calgary is located in Canada, and a photo of Lake Louise on his bulletin board. As luck would have it, the pattern on the room's carpeted floor, together with strong room lighting, is perfect for demonstrating his real-time 3D optical positioning and navigation system.

Just after setup, the finalists and their families are heading to Tesla - the high performance electric car manufacturer - for a brief visit, then back to their hotel for dinner and an evening of relaxation - or final tweaking and polishing. Tomorrow, bring on the judges...

Google Science Fair 2011 finalists and visitors pass under a scale model of the X-Prize winning Spaceship One on their way to the exhibit hall room.
Google Science Fair 2011 Finalist, Christopher Nielsen from Calgary, Alberta, Canada explains his project to visitors.