Navigating Middle School & High School Science Fairs

By Haripriya Mehta, MIT (BS & MEng), Co-founder of MehtA+

Participating in a science fair can be an exhilarating experience.

Science fairs are events in which students pursue an independent science project and present their results to judges, teachers and other students. The results are most often displayed on a tri-fold and sometimes even accompanied by a live demo of the science experiment.

While adhering to all the rules and deadlines of science fairs can be intimidating at first, it doesn’t have to be. Based on our vast experience guiding students on winning science fair projects, we, here, at MehtA+, have put together a seven-step checklist to keep you on track.

1. Decide on a science fair competition

Perhaps you already have a project idea or you have yet to brainstorm an idea. Regardless of where you are in the process, it’s a good idea to understand the rules of the science fair competition that you are planning to participate in.

Two of the most prestigious science fair competitions are ISEF (Intel Science and Engineering Fair) and JSHS (Junior Science and Humanities Symposium).

ISEF is open to Grades 9–12 students.


Regeneron ISEF (International Science and Engineering Fair) is a multi-tiered competition open to Grades 9–12 students. Students in the US generally start out at a local or regional science fair affiliated with Society for Science. Participants who do extraordinarily well can advance to state and eventually, ISEF. Many countries outside the US also hold Society for Science affiliated fairs. In India, for example, students must do well at IRIS (Initiative for Research and Innovation in STEM) National Fair to qualify for ISEF. A full list of fairs can be found here.

Thermo Fisher Scientific Junior Innovators Challenge

Middle school students can participate in local and regional fairs affiliated with Society for Science. While they are not eligible for ISEF, participants who do well can advance to State and are nominated to Thermo Fisher Scientific Junior Innovators Challenge.


JSHS (Junior Science and Humanities Symposium) is similarly a multi-tiered competition open to Grades 9–12 students. Students start out at regional JSHS symposium. Regional finalists advance to national JSHS symposium. Students must be a citizen or legal permanent resident of the United States or U.S. territory to participate in JSHS. A full list of fairs can be found here.


Regeneron STS (Science Talent Search) is open to Grades 12 students who live in the United States or are United States citizens. While the first round is judged based on the review of the research report, the top 40 finalists present their research at a science fair in Washington D.C.

Working together in a team of people with diverse perspectives can lead to more creative ideas.

2. Decide whether the project will be an individual/team effort

While STS is open to only individual applicants, ISEF and JSHS allow team entries. For ISEF, teams are limited to up to 3 individuals.

There are of course, pros and cons to participating as an individual or as part of a team. Participating as an individual will allow you to focus on a research question that you are really passionate about. Taking full ownership of a project from start to finish will give you the opportunity to master several skills. Additionally, individuals also don’t have to worry about interpersonal conflicts or disagreements on division of work, that often accompany team work.

However, working in a team of people with diverse perspectives, can lead to more creative ideas. Leaning on teammates and working through problems together when you get stuck can facilitate continuous progress on a science fair project. Additionally, teams can often pursue more complex projects than individuals as there are more people to work on various aspects of the project.

There is no wrong decision, but knowing which path you will be taking early on, can be helpful to being on track for the science fair.

Science Fair Categories include animal sciences, computational biology and mathematics.

3. Know the categories

Each science fair has its own categories and sub categories. If you already have a project idea, you can check out which category your project best fits into. It’s possible that your project might fit into multiple categories, but choose one!

If you don’t have a project idea, looking at the categories and subcategories and determining which topics interest you, might be one way to narrow down the field in which you would like to pursue your science fair project.

Categories in science fairs can be diverse and can include anything from animal sciences, behavioral sciences, computational biology, earth and environmental sciences, mathematics and material sciences to embedded systems. ISEF has a full list of categories and subcategories here. The list of categories for JSHS can be found here.

Make sure to check out the past projects of ISEF winners.

4. Take a look at past winning projects

It is a great idea to take a look at abstracts for past winning projects to get a sense of the types of projects that belong in the category of your interest and that do well in the science fair. If you don’t have a project idea, looking at past projects database might give you some ideas.

ISEF has a wonderful projects database that has a list of abstracts submitted by students to ISEF affiliated fairs in past years. Other science fair websites also may have a list of past winners and project titles.

5. Know your deliverables and deadlines

The deadline of the entry for regional science fair depends on the region.

For Society for Science affiliated fairs, participants have to submit a SRC (Scientific Review Committee) approval form. If experiments involve human subjects, participants must also fill an IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval form. Participants must also submit a student checklist, a research plan/project summary, an abstract and optionally, a research paper.

Signatures from an adult sponsor, qualified scientist and a designated supervisor are also required. An adult sponsor may be a teacher, parent, professor, and/or other professional scientist. A qualified scientist has to have earned a doctoral/professional degree in a scientific discipline related to a student’s area of research. A designated supervisor does not need an advanced degree, but must be familiar with the student’s project. One adult can serve multiple roles (adult sponsor, qualified scientist and designated supervisor).

As part of MehtA+’s project mentorship program, a mentor will help you brainstorm a project idea, provide support as you dive deeper into your research question and make sure you are on track with all the deliverables.

Make sure to keep track of fair deadlines.

While local and regional fairs generally take place between January to March, some deliverables may be due as early as December. State fairs take place from March to April, and ISEF takes place in May.

For JSHS, registration is open between October and January. Participants must submit an abstract and research paper. Regional symposia are held from January to February, and the national symposium is held in May.

For STS, applications open in June. Essay questions, questions about your project, a maximum 20-page original scientific paper, recommendations, transcripts and optional test scores are due in November. Towards the beginning of January, top 300 scholars are announced. The 40 finalists are announced towards the end of January and the science fair takes place in March.

6. Know the rubric

It is a good idea to internalize the judging criteria so that you are adequately prepared for the science fair. Judges generally look out for a clear and focused research question, well-designed experiments, reproducibility of results and creativity. They will also grade your poster for its organization of material as well as the interview that they conduct with you. Interview answers must note the impact the science experiment has on society as well as delineate potential ideas for further research.

ISEF’s rubric, JSHS’ poster judging rubric and oral judging rubric outline the expectations of the judges.

Make sure to bring your poster to the science fair!

7. Go prepared

On the day of the science fair, make sure you have everything you need to present to the judges. Tables are provided by science fair venues, but you will need to bring your own poster presenting your research work. For ISEF, the maximum size requirements for the poster are 48 in x 30 in x 108 in (W x H X D). You may be allowed to bring your experiment materials and demo your experiment, provided all the materials are in accordance with the display and safety rules. Make sure to also bring any relevant forms with you that have been requested by the science form organizers.

Wishing you luck in your science fair journey! Happy experimenting!