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Published Tuesday April 13, 2021

How SARSEF Built and Ran a Virtual Science and Engineering Fair

COVID-19, Virtual Science Fairs, and the Hybrid Events on the Horizon

As we wrap up our 66th Annual SARSEF Science and Engineering Fair–our first ever fully virtual fair–we’re reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages of holding an entirely virtual event. The decision to pivot to a 100% virtual fair was out of community responsibility and concern for public health due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, through revisiting and rethinking our structure to work in a virtual environment, we have learned some benefits that virtual projects bring to the table. We wanted to share our methods here in order to help other fairs and similar science education events as they put their own plans in place. Moving forward, we are also being thoughtful about what new methods we’d like to keep as we may head toward hybrid events in the future. If you have any questions, we are more than happy to be a resource.

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. Typically, we have around 2,000 projects that need 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.

SARSEF Fair 2020 – Pivoting a Fair

Photo by Danielle Fowler

The week before our fair in mid-March of 2020, we were under the impression that we would be able to keep the same fair schedule. Over the weekend prior to the fair, the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus became more recognized throughout the country.

Each day as news of the pandemic circulated and updated precautions were announced, we recognized that we needed to modify the fair 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 still allow judging to happen in the safest way possible and to then cancel any other events that would bring large crowds together. We used social distancing and also held virtual interviews for out-of-town communities so that they could avoid travel but still participate remotely. After the fair, we set up a contactless pickup system for teachers and parents to pick up their students’ awards from our office. To read more about our 2020 Fair, check out our previous blog post.

SARSEF Fair 2021 – Crafting A Fully Virtual Fair

As it became clear the pandemic would be with us for a while, we began planning for a fully virtual fair for 2021. From the outset, we knew we wanted a virtual platform that would allow for a similar viewing of all projects in a virtual exhibit hall. Our Event Manager researched and demo-ed over twenty different event management platforms to gather research about what already existed in this space. Instead of attempting to show a simulated physical space in a digital environment, our designers envisioned a virtual space where each project had a card with minimal information that you could click on to open the project page/presentation. From the exhibit hall, viewers could see hundreds of projects, but also narrow down their selections by grade, category, or search for keywords. We built as a prototype for our regional fair to allow schools to hold their fairs free-of-charge and familiarize themselves with a virtual fair platform, knowing that the success of our virtual fair would largely depend on the amount of support that we’d be able to provide at the school level.

The “School Fairs” platform ended up hosting 75 schools and over 2,700 student projects. At least 3 schools credited this resource as the reason they were able to hold their fair this year.

SARSEF Fair 2021 – Supporting the Switch

Knowing that the success of the regional fair would be largely dependant on how comfortable teachers, students, and parents feel with the switch, we understood that detailed information about the new format was essential. We understood that teachers would need the information about digital projects first and foremost. Society for Science, who hosts the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair released some initial guidelines that students would present “slide decks” as opposed to project boards. We notified the teachers in our region about this change with some initial, albeit fairly vague, guidelines that we updated with final requirements as we heard more from ISEF. Once we finalized those project requirements, we also created sample projects that teachers and students could refer to.

We held trainings over Zoom to assist any teachers and fair directors using School Fairs or those with questions about the digital project presentations. SARSEF’s What Do We Wonder program was offered free-of-charge in 46 schools in which SARSEF educators visited classrooms to help those groups work through the entire research process from start to finish.   

SARSEF Fair 2021 – Keeping With Tradition

As we envisioned our own virtual fair, there were elements from our in-person fair that we wanted to preserve and reimagine in a virtual world. 

  • In past years, judges, volunteers, and others were able to leave sticky notes on projects with encouraging messages for the students. We developed a feature to leave comments below the projects similar to responding to a post on social media. The ability to review and approve these comments before they became visible was a part of safety considerations.
  • We always hold a public viewing day, where families are encouraged to come view the projects. We encouraged the community to browse the over 1,000 projects online by including such features as the randomized “project spotlight” and the project scavenger hunt with a prize for participation. 
  • Annually, Future Innovators Night is a large community event where exhibitors present STEM-related demos and activities. This year, we held “Future Innovator Day,” a day-long virtual event on YouTube featuring pre-recorded activity demos from our community partners that premiered throughout the day as well as two live, interactive sessions featuring a live hacking activity from Pima Community College’s cybersecurity program and  “Ask an Engineer” with professionals from Amazon’s local fulfillment center, TUS2, and IBM/UA Tech Parks. Hundreds of students, family members, and other community members tuned in for these broadcasts. 
  • The Awards Ceremony was streamed live via YouTube from a community partner, the Children’s Museum of Tucson, with Proper Villains LLC’s technical assistance. Announcers and presenters at the location were kept to a minimum, and some pre-recorded videos were used to introduce awards. A picture in picture slideshow allowed for the students’ names to be seen while the announcer was reading. The live-streamed event was available to rewatch as soon as the stream ended in case students were unable to watch while it was live. 
  • In the absence of a physical location to display the banners and logos of our generous donors, we built in ways for them to be featured throughout the virtual fair website as well as during our broadcasts. 
  • The SARSEF Fair prides itself on awarding students over $100,000 in cash and scholarships, and hundreds of physical trophies, certificates, and other prizes. The virtual format did not hinder that and within a week and a half after the Fair, SARSEF Staff had delivered all awards to the 139 schools that participated through carefully planned delivery routes.

SARSEF Fair 2021 – Judging in a Virtual WorldAll judging occurs on one day at SARSEF in an in-person year. When going virtual, we knew we could spread out the judging over multiple days. We decided to hold all Elementary School judging on Monday, Middle School on Tuesday, half of the High School Categories on Wednesday, with the remaining half of the HS categories on Thursday. This would allow for award preparation to occur throughout the week and allow some judges to volunteer to serve in more than one category/grade level. Instead of taking a full day off of work, judges would also only potentially need to be available for half of the day. We devised a schedule to allow for interviews to happen at a specific time, so that parents and teachers could also plan to allow their students to sign into Zoom and speak to judges about their projects. 

Based on our experience with remote interviews in 2020, we decided to have a block of time for each judging team to meet over Zoom to caucus and follow up directly with interviews to minimize the need for connecting, disconnecting, and reconnecting multiple times. Zoom also provided a backup to be able to dial in with a phone in case internet connections were unstable on the day of judging. This was our schedule:

Monday, 3/1 – Elementary School Interviews and Judging

11:30a – 1:00p – Elementary School Judging Team Caucus 

1:00p – 4:00p – PreK – 5th Grade Interviews (optional for students)

Tuesday, 3/2 – Middle School Interviews and Judging

8:00a – 9:30a – Middle School Judging Team Caucus 

9:30a – 12:30p – 6th – 8th Grade Interviews (optional for students)

Wednesday, 3/3 – High School Interviews and Judging

8:00a – 12:00p – HS Judging/Interviews for Animal Science, Biochemical Science and Bioengineering, Cellular and Molecular Biology

10:00a – 3:00p – HS Judging/Interviews for Behavioral and Social Science, Earth and Environmental Science

12:00p – 4:00p – HSJudging/Interviews for Chemical and Material Science, Electrical and Mechanical Engineering

Thursday, 3/4 – High School Interviews and Judging

8:00a – 12:00p – HS Judging/Interviews for Energy and Environmental Engineering, Microbiology

10:00a – 3:00p – HS Judging/Interviews for Health and Biomedical Science, Plant Science

12:00p – 4:00p – HS Judging/Interviews for Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics, Robotics and Computer Science

4:00p – 6:00p – Final Caucus for Top Prizes

For Elementary and Middle School, judges met in advance of the interview periods to discuss Grand Awards and make decisions. Winners were input prior to the start of interviews so that interviews would not impact the judges choices, keeping them genuinely optional. 

For High School Teams, judges met prior to interviews to begin to caucus and establish which projects were beginning to rise to the top, broke to interview students according to the schedule, and then regrouped to make and input final decisions. 

This model relied on the foundation of each judge’s familiarity with the technology being used, namely the Virtual Fair website/exhibit hall, the SARSEF website to download their project assignments, and Zoom. The actual scoring of projects was not completed virtually. Judges were given scoring sheets that they could use in the method that was most comfortable to them (we provided a print out or a fillable pdf). Those score sheets would then inform the caucus conversation, but were not submitted. 

A judge training was repeated four times and recorded to ensure judges had access to the materials and time to ask questions.

To build confidence using this new format, we held multiple trainings where judges could see exactly what their position would entail. The trainings were held over Zoom to give them some experience right away. All of the information at training was provided in a digital Judging Guidebook that they could reference later. A recording of the training was also posted on YouTube for later viewing. As the Exhibit Hall officially opened, we also held a drop-in help session over Zoom in case individual judges had questions as they were getting started. 

Perhaps the most meaningful change to judging that stood out as a benefit this year was the ability to open the Exhibit Hall two days before any caucusing was to begin. The deadline for project submission was one week before the fair, which gave SARSEF time to check projects against Display and Safety Guidelines and either approve or process updated submissions. We officially opened the Hall at noon on the Saturday before Fair Week. That meant the judges had a lot of time to review their assigned projects thoroughly, something that returning judges overwhelmingly loved. In a regular year, they have only a couple of hours to look over all of their projects. They loved having the time to really familiarize themselves, noting that it made for a more complete and fair evaluation of projects. 

Besides the awarding of Grand Awards, the SARSEF Fair facilitates something called “Sponsored Awards,” where a community group or individual gives something to a student,  school, or teacher to support their efforts. It might be money, goods, or an experience – the possibilities are truly endless! Those sponsoring the award lets SARSEF know if they would like to choose the winner themselves or if they would like a SARSEF representative to decide on the recipient based on provided criteria. To facilitate this process in a virtual year, we had a Zoom meeting open each day of the Fair where Sponsored Awards Judges could drop in to ask questions or meet with others from the awarding organization in a Breakout Room. Staffed by a SARSEF employee, it was here in the Zoom meeting that the SA judge would report the winner of their award and it would be recorded. With 450 sponsored awards, we determined a decision deadline to ensure we had enough time to process the winners, but it gave us all a full week to complete and input these awards. 

SARSEF Fair 2021 – Interviewing with Zoom Fatigue

Perhaps the most complicated aspect of the 2021 Fair was coordinating the interviews. It certainly had the most moving parts and demanded the most personnel and trained volunteers to coordinate the hundreds of participants signing into our Zoom meetings at any given time. The fact that the 2021 Fair was almost a year into the pandemic, Zoom is now commonplace for most of us, but because of that, we know we were also battling Zoom fatigue.

We had Zoom meetings scheduled depending on the category. The number/distribution of meetings was based on any meeting only having to facilitate/serve roughly 30 projects at any given time. The basic concept was that students and judges would enter the main session of the meeting, which we termed the “lobby” and would be assigned to a unique “interview room” (breakout room). We would assign the student to their own room, with both the student and their interview room (if possible) named their project number. Once in the room, the student could share their screen, showing their project, so that it could be referenced while speaking. 

Then, the host of the Zoom meeting would move judges to different rooms to interview the students. One breakout room was named the “Judges Lounge” where judges were placed when not interviewing a student. This reduced confusion in the “lobby” and allowed the host to move attendees as quickly as possible for desired efficiency. This “Judges Lounge” was also the location of the caucus before and/or after the interviews. 

Since Elementary and Middle School interviews were optional and did not count toward judging, the interviews were unscheduled and happened on a drop-in basis depending on the drop-in hour we gave to each grade band. Students would enter the meeting, change their name to the project number, then the host would assign them to an empty breakout room and move a judge in to interview the student. Once done, the judge would return to the main session, the “lobby,” and be assigned to another student who was waiting. We allowed the students to be interviewed at least 3 times before signing off. 

Holding the elementary school interviews first, it allowed our Meeting Hosts to become comfortable with the basic mechanics of efficiently moving participants in and out of breakout rooms in preparation for our High School interviews, which would require a lot more precision and efficiency. 

Since High School interviews were required, we were able to hash the schedule out fully, matching judges with projects so that each project would have at least three different interviews, with some categories supporting even 5-6 different interviews! Interviews were 10 minutes long, but scheduled every 15 minutes to allow for a 5 min “passing period” where the host would be moving the judges to their next interview room. Once again, the students stayed in their unique interview room (breakout room) sharing their screen, waiting for the next judge to visit. If a judge didn’t have an interview scheduled, they were transferred to the Judges Lounge until their next scheduled interview. The Host used the broadcast feature to send messages to all about wheninterviews would start and end.

Safety was a major concern in the SARSEF Fair. We did not want to allow one student and one judge to be in a breakout room without any other individuals present. To avoid this, we required adult supervision at the ES level. We would confirm for those in grades PreK-5 that they had an adult nearby. Many were joining from school and had teachers present and others were joining from home and had parents overseeing. We encouraged  this at the Middle School level as well, but we had background-checked volunteers, termed “Moderators,” standing by in the Zoom meeting that hosts could send to the breakout room with a student that did not have an adult present. That moderator served as a silent observer when judges came in to interview.  

For the High School interviews, we planned for a moderator to be present in every interview. As students joined and were sent to their interview room, we sent a moderator as well to observe the interviews. When we had a shortage of moderators in one category, we moved the moderators around with the judges, but it was definitely easier to have each room fitted with a moderator, who would just stay put. This allowed for smoother transitions (less people to move). 

We had very few connectivity issues, but when they occurred, we worked with the student or judge to solve the issue or help them get connected via phone instead, so they could still participate. 

Clear instructions for students (Elementary, Middle, and High School), judges, moderators, and hosts were distributed to each participant beforehand. 

SARSEF Fair 2021 – Engaging Volunteers

Many of us rely on the gift of time from the volunteers who help make these events possible. The roles that volunteers fulfilled looked much different this year than others. Here were the roles that we posted:

  • Display and Safety Checkers worked with us the week before the Fair to approve projects for the floor. 
  • Comment Writers looked at student projects in the virtual exhibit hall and left thousands of encouraging and congratulatory notes. This was a very popular volunteer role.
  • Award Prep volunteers assisted SARSEF Staff in the office in preparing for award delivery. We reduced the number of these volunteers to a bare minimum for safety.
  • Interview Moderators were perhaps the most vital and the most numerous. These individuals were background-checked and were tasked with observing judge/student interviews. They were to sit in on every interview as a safety precaution and alert SARSEF staff if any assistance was needed. 
  • Zoom Meeting Hosts was a position that required the biggest commitment and expertise. Employees of one of our community partners, Proper Villains LLC, fulfilled this role so that we worked with the same 8 people all week long. We held trainings, mock meetings, and created a Slack channel where we could all stay in touch throughout the week. 

If the volunteer role required training, we held volunteer trainings over Zoom as we got closer to the Fair, where we reviewed the process, specific responsibilities, as well as introduced all participants to the virtual format. 

SARSEF Fair 2021 – Benefits of a Virtual Fair

Forced to innovate due to the global pandemic, we were grateful to see some unexpected benefits of this new model. It will be important to consider these when planning for future fairs. 

  • No need to travel meant that it saved time, was more convenient, and allowed for greater accessibility
  • Many teachers and students cited that creating a slideshow (instead of a display board) was more equitable, easier, and more enjoyable
  • Some students reported that less distractions made for less stressful interviews
  • Those outside of Arizona could participate (either family members viewing projects or the opportunity to volunteer or judge)
  • Having all projects posted online allowed judges to easily refer to projects while caucusing

SARSEF Fair 2021 – Lessons Learned

  • Communication is key. We encountered times where our participants were not getting important emails. Do whatever you can to be sure that the important information is getting out, is consistent, and is easy to find on your website. Since changes may occur (especially in a nonstandard year), be sure to update and reformat information in a simple and concise manner. 
  • Try to make decisions sooner rather than later. You must strike a balance between being decisive and remaining flexible, but the sooner you can decide specific guidelines and deadlines, the better. This allows for more time for the information to disseminate and allows teachers and students to get a strong start in the correct direction. 
  • Trainings and dry runs are absolutely essential. Though we ran many mock interview sessions to troubleshoot potential issues through Zoom (and discovered and worked through quite a few!), there were still many technical difficulties that arose during the week. The more you can explore all potential challenges and simulate the full event, to smoother the actual event will run. It is also helpful to read through Zoom (or other platforms) help boards to see what challenges other users have encountered and potential solutions. 
  • Each Zoom meeting should have a Host and a Co-host. One should be responsible for greeting participants and helping to orient them and the other can assist with the logistics of moving and assigning to different rooms. 
  • Though we went back and forth between whether interviews should be drop-in/first come, first served or 100% scheduled with specific times for student/judge pairings, the hyper-scheduled interviews ran more efficiently than the drop-in format.
  • As with other aspects of the event, many unexpected obstacles can arise with any live-streaming content you have planned (activities, showcases, awards ceremonies). Run full rehearsals and dry tech run-throughs. Simulate the actual day as closely as possible. Do not skimp on this piece. It helps to eliminate potential problems or prepare you with a backup should such issues arise. 
  • Perhaps one of the most surprising things we learned was that meaningful connections can indeed happen online. Due to the logistical difficulty, one might wonder if the interviews are worth it. Both judges and students remarked that it was their favorite aspect of the entire event. They were grateful that we maintained this piece. Additionally, we offered this opportunity to Elementary students for the first time this year, and many students, teachers, and judges have asked that we continue this in future years. 

What’s in Store for 2022?

Now, more than ever, is the right time to encourage students to learn to think critically and solve problems. 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.

We are grateful for the participation that we received this year from teachers, students, caregivers, judges, volunteers, and community partners. Moving forward, we have more tools on our belt to create meaningful science and engineering fairs for all of our stakeholders. While we all look forward to the return of in-person events, we have learned so much that we hope to apply in future scenarios to expand the reach of our programs. Hybrid events may very well be the future. 

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 pool resources and experiences, we can propel the next generation of STEM learners. This year’s virtual fair can still be viewed at

Danniey Wright

SARSEF Fair Director