International Science and Engineering Fair finalist Sonja Michaluk watches the fair's opening ceremony in her home lab. Photo: courtesy of Sonja Michaluk

Modern high school science fair projects are a long way from model volcanoes — they can now feature DNA sequencing, 3D printers, and other technologies from the pages of scientific and technical journals. But for all the cutting-edge science, most fairs are still held in person — or were, until the coronavirus pandemic forced many to go virtual this year.

Why it matters: Science fairs are the culmination of at least months of work for many high school students and can connect them to lifelong friends and opportunities.

What's happening: Like most events, science fairs across the country and around the world went virtual this year.

  • Today, McKinley Technology High School seniors took part in their Virtual STEM Fair. The D.C. public school students created videos of their projects in biotechnology, cybersecurity, engineering and digital media, many of which were cut short by the pandemic.
  • They were then judged along with their responses in a live Q&A session.
  • "Kids can feel really stressed out about being in the fair. This way was less stressful," says student Mickeyla Clark of D.C.

For the first time in 70 years, the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) was held online last week. It included more than 30 panel discussions with science superstars, virtual experiences, and college and university presentations.

  • The roughly 1,300 finalists from 55 countries presented their work in a virtual exhibition hall.
  • The organizers decided to forgo the usual competition, given that since feeder fairs were canceled or went virtual, not all students could take part. (For reference, the top winner at ISEF usually takes home $75,000, and more than $4 million in cash and other prizes are awarded to others.)

But the virtual format also meant many more people were able to attend, says Maya Ajmera, CEO of the Society for Science & the Public, which organizes ISEF.

  • Nearly 18,000 people had registered as of this morning.
  • "It was so satisfying to see such experiences expanded to those who would not have had access," says Sonja Michaluk, a 17-year-old student from Titusville, New Jersey, who is a three-time ISEF finalist. She says she encouraged a friend in Bangladesh to join. "He would not have had such an opportunity. He has often said that he has limited access to things as basic as books."
  • Ajmera says they're likely to stick with some virtual components going forward. "It's a game-changer."

"I’m impressed they kept the fair going considering the global situation," says Michaluk. "I think that’s incredible and it teaches us young scientists and engineers the importance of being nimble and adapting because if we are going to solve the world’s problems we need those skills."

What to watch: If the pandemic continues to keep students out of labs this year, Ajmera expects they may instead plumb big datasets or explore computational problems. And she says she's interested in seeing how the pandemic inspires next year's projects.

Go deeper: You can watch ISEF's programming here until June 5.

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