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Published Tuesday March 17, 2020

How We Modified our Fair during the COVID-19 Outbreak

Photo by Rebecca Sasnett, Arizona Daily Star

As we wrap up our 65th Annual SARSEF Science and Engineering Fair, we have started reflecting on our methods of handling the COVID-19 outbreak while planning and running a large event. We wanted to share our approach here in order to help other fairs and similar science education events as they put their own plans in place. If you have any questions, we are more than happy to be a resource.

We also recognize that everything is changing very quickly, and so we would not have been able to have our fair as detailed below if it was even a day later. Information about mobile interviews and award ceremonies might be the most helpful moving forward.

SARSEF Fair – Background on a Typical Year

For a little bit of background, our fair is typically four days long. On Wednesday of fair week, projects are set up by teachers, fair directors, school administrators, parents, and students depending on each school’s preference. This year, we had 2,225 projects that needed to be set up.

On Thursday, judging takes place. Typically, pre-k through fifth-grade projects are judged without the students present, and middle school (6-8) and high school students are interviewed by the judges. Middle school interviews are optional and high school interviews are required. We give out grand awards with a cash prize in every category and around 450 sponsored awards every year.

Friday is an open house when the public visits to see the projects- particularly field trips. At night we have Future Innovators Night in the project hall which includes around 50 booths by local organizations offering hands-on science activities for families free of charge. Usually, around 4,000 people attend. At the same time Future Innovators Night is held, a concurrent donor appreciation event is held overlooking the project hall to thank donors and bring in new prospects. Typically, 150 attend.

On Saturday, we have an elementary school award ceremony in the morning and the middle school/high school award ceremony in the afternoon.

Photo by Danielle Fowler

SARSEF Fair 2020 – Crafting A Modified Fair

The week before the fair, we were under the impression that we would be able to keep the same fair schedule. There was one diagnosed case of coronavirus in the state and large local events were still planned to take place including Tucson’s annual Festival of Books, an event that includes 450 authors and presenters and 50,000 regional visitors each year. Over the weekend, the spread of the virus became more recognized throughout the country.

Monday morning of fair week (March 10), we recognized that we’d need to modify the fair in some way and began devising a plan that would minimize crowds but preserve the core mission of the fair- to encourage and reward the young scientists and engineers of Southern Arizona. We decided to do what we could to make judging happen in the safest way possible and to then cancel any other events that would bring large crowds together. When the Tucson Festival of Books cancelled, we knew we had made the right choice.

We crafted this statement to initially announce the changes. We identified our key stakeholders that needed to know, our best channels of communication to get the word out, and who on our staff would be the main contact for different stakeholder groups. That way, we were able to time the release so key contacts would be informed before the statement was sent to the press for broader publicity.

While people were certainly disappointed, most feedback we received was positive and we were humbled by our community’s support and trust in our decisions. We found that the most important thing was to communicate. We published a blog post that listed out the new schedule and tried to respond to questions and media requests as soon as we could to avoid confusion.

Here is the press coverage we received:

            Arizona Public Media

            Arizona Daily Star



            After Judging Day: Arizona Daily Star   

Our Plan

The biggest changes were:

-We encouraged schools to send one representative to set up all of their projects. We also spaced project pick-up out across three days.

-Middle school interviews were cancelled – this was perhaps the hardest decision but the right one in order to minimize the number of people on the project floor. This year our middle school section was made up of 654 projects, and so if each student came we could have had 920 students on the floor.

-High school students were encouraged to attend in-person interviews, but the option of remote interviewing was offered. This year we ended up with 374 projects as one high school pulled out completely. We were prepared for 569 students on the floor.

-Since Middle School interviews were cancelled, we condensed their project space and placed one High School Project per 8-foot table to allow more distance during interviews.

-Future Innovators Night was cancelled.

-Our Donor Appreciation Event will be rescheduled for another date.

-Award Ceremonies would be available on our SARSEF YouTube Channel. We had initially planned to live stream them but decided to record ahead of time in order to incorporate videos from our supporters.

-We posted office hours for the next week in case anyone wanted to pick up their award. Afterward, we would be delivering the awards directly to the schools.

-We notified our judges of the changes and gave them the option of cancelling if they had any health concerns.

-We decided to play it by ear on our retail store. It was set up with all merchandise but had limited hours and closed early due to concern over spread via contaminated objects. We are currently working on a system to make that merchandise available to those who were not able to pick out a t-shirt or another memento from the fair.

Photo by Rebecca Sasnett, Arizona Daily Star

What Went Well

-The best thing we did for the operations of our unusual fair is visit the offices of Proper Villains LLC to brainstorm how to handle the technological side of the fair that would allow for remote interviews and online award ceremonies. They were confident they could provide what we needed and volunteered hours upon hours of their time to make it happen. We are beyond grateful for their assistance.

-Remote interviews were required for ~70 high school students. Since 69% of SARSEF Fair participants were from Title I schools this year, it was crucial for us to offer virtual interviews as well as phone interviews. In our region, many of our students have access to the internet through their teacher’s computer but do not have a cell or home phone. Being thoughtful of our student’s circumstances was critical.

We set up iPads at 11 stations and used Google Hangouts to connect students to judges. Here is the information we requested from high school students to set up the interviews:

Eleven SARSEF email addresses (one per iPad-, etc.) sent students planning to remote interview an electronic invite for their interview times so they could easily connect when a judge was ready. For required interviews, students and judges were scheduled to connect at specific times, so that each judge knew which station to report to. Disposable headphones were provided to each judge, and each iPad was wiped down after use. After that day, each SARSEF account was deleted in order to protect student information.

If we couldn’t get ahold of the students via Hangouts, we would call the cell phone number on their registration form from a SARSEF cell phone. If the student didn’t pick up the phone, we would call the parent, then the teacher, then the fair director to get ahold of them. Every student was reached, although some were not reached during their scheduled time. Judges were happy to make adjustments so they could make it work for the students. The remote interview stations were managed by three Proper Villains staff members and three SARSEF staff. More staff were involved in the beginning to get everything up and running.

The judges were told by their team leader if students were interviewing remotely and we put a sign on the table in front of remote interview project boards as a reminder. The judges took a picture of the project boards on their phones to refer to during the interview.

-Usually, we have judges leave encouraging notes on post-its for our elementary school students. This time, we encouraged middle school judges to leave notes as well since the middle school students wouldn’t be getting interviewed and we wanted to make sure they still knew that the judges reviewed their projects thoroughly and cared about their work.

Photo by Rebecca Sasnett, Arizona Daily Star

-We lost over 50 judges in the 24 hours before our fair, but also needed fewer judges because the middle school interviews were cancelled. We moved as many judges to the high school category as possible if their qualifications allowed it so that we would still have good interview coverage. Judges at the elementary and middle school levels (minimum of 3/project) were able to review projects at a faster rate than high school judges, and they still had the time and coverage they needed to be thoughtful in their decisions.

-We gave high school judges individual hand sanitizer bottles (thanks to our incredible title sponsor TEP). Additionally, we spaced out the high school projects more than usual and encouraged everyone to use the new “SARSEF handshake” – two thumbs up for science!! Here is the flyer we posted throughout the building to encourage guests to use proper hygiene.

-We asked our high-level sponsors to either send us a video or to come to the convention center to record a message for our award ceremonies. We recorded the award ceremonies and Proper Villains worked hard to do all of the editing and to piece it all together. Have we mentioned how great they are yet?

Lessons We Learned

-During project set-up and pick-up, it was important to make the fair feel as normal as possible for all guests – especially students. If students brought their own projects to set up, it was important to take the time to recognize and congratulate them. This was their special time to feel proud of their work and to set it up with care.

-There are so many factors that impact the success of a remote interview. Most importantly, the internet connection on our end AND on the student’s end. This is especially important because we were connecting with students in rural areas that had less reliable internet connections. We soon realized it was much easier to keep a student on the line once we were able to connect with them and to then cycle the judges through to sit down and talk to that student.

Photo by Rebecca Sasnett, Arizona Daily Star

Additionally, we learned that we needed to confirm the best phone number where we could reach the student in case the Google Hangouts call didn’t work. While we had the information on file, this step would have streamlined the process.

Testing the remote connections would be a beneficial step to build into the schedule.

We recommend staggering the start time of interviews for each iPad Station so you don’t have multiple interviews starting at the same time. This allows you to get each judge connected to their student before moving on to the next one and takes less staff.

Our most successful method of the remote interviewing process was when we could interview multiple students that attended the same school. The teachers of those schools coordinated with SARSEF to have computer stations in their classrooms with an open Hangout connection with the fair. Our judges and their students were able to cycle through avoiding the time lost in establishing a new connection repeatedly. If schools could host the remote interviews for their students, we could match judges and students more efficiently, increasing the time they get to discuss the project.

Another update we would have made was to ensure the students also took a photo of their boards to refer to during their interviews.

-We had hoped to release our award ceremony videos at the times that our award ceremonies usually took place on Saturday. This did not happen because we wanted to provide videos that captured the same magic we all feel when sitting in the awards ceremony, and we realized that it would take longer than we initially anticipated. If you take this approach, we highly recommend giving yourself more time than you think you might need to create something really special even though the wait is hard. Of course, the other option was to live-stream our awards through YouTube, but the messages from high-level supporters and sponsors were a great way to compensate for the exposure they lost due to our restricted attendance and was a fun way for our audience to still hear from STEM professionals.


Click here to watch the SARSEF Fair 2020 Elementary School Awards Ceremony
Click here to watch the 2020 SARSEF Fair Middle and High School Awards Ceremony.

On to the SARSEF Fair 2021

What we have learned this week is that people are kind and understanding. While we were all concerned about the state of the world and the spread of a pandemic, out on the floor, as professionals judged the student projects, their minds were on those students and the hard work they put into their projects. The big wide world stopped for SARSEF students, and we can’t thank our judges enough for that.

Also, reach out for help, because you never know who shares a passion for your mission and can help you along the way.

Now, more than ever, is the right time to encourage students in science and engineering. Thanks to the support we receive from our community, our students know that they are incredible scientists and engineers who can pursue STEM careers if their hearts lead them to it.

If you are working out logistics for your own fair or for a similar science event, please don’t hesitate to reach out. As we mentioned, circumstances have changed and this model will not necessarily be a good fit moving forward, but we are more than happy to talk out any details with you.


Julie Euber