A few days ago I was asked to participate in the judging of a high-school level science fair involving entries from several cities, and I was amazed by the entries - but not in a good way.

I have been in science fairs in the past. I have worked with dozens of other people who have competed at very high level science fairs. And of course I have studied science and mathematics all the way to the highest levels and have published original research in leading peer-reviewed journals. I know what good science fair projects look like and I can also spot when something isn't quite right.

Which leads me to my comments on the projects I was seeing...

Rule #1, when the project involves thousands of dollars of equipment it probably wasn't actually done as a high school project. I saw a couple of projects which used expensive medical equipment or specialized electronics, which were allegedly done by 13-14 year old kids. The science fair rules forbid parental assistance, so where did these kids get this equipment from?

Rule #2, if you are working on a problem you should have the education required for it. I have seen students tackle complicated mathematics problems quite well, because the problem is easy to understand even if the solution is unknown. I have seen students (especially in my peer group when I was in high school) who learned computer programming at the same time they learned to write and who can do outstanding work on algorithms and programming. So when I see those projects, I can believe that the student did them.

 But then I see a student project claiming to have resolved the problem of quantizing gravity. If a 15-year-old had really done that, they would be publishing in professional journals - not submitting it to a science fair. And I don't mean that to imply that a physics or math prodigy couldn't think up an innovative solution that everyone else missed - but to even understand the problem requires the equivalent of a decade of physics and mathematics education, and any teenager who could do that would already be well known to the academic community. (For the record, I examined the theory and it resolved none of the problems with quantum gravity while also not including either quantum theory nor relativistic gravity)

 And Rule #3, if your parent is explaining your project better than you are, the judges can easily guess who did the work. It is true that sometimes if the parents have exciting careers in science their children want to work on the same topic, and that is fine. I don't even have an objection if the parent teaches their teenager the basics of the field and suggests a project. However some of these projects are very clearly written entirely by the adults and not the students. And taking credit for someone else's work is definitely not what a science fair is meant to teach.

Now that I have been so negative, I do want to be clear that 95% of the science fair projects are truly inspirational and amazing work. It is reassuring to see so many high school students take an active interest in science and mathematics, it is those students that I commend for their hard work and passion!