Sunday 14 March 2021

Hosting a Virtual Science Fair in 2020

I gave this talk to the Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch at their AGM on 21st October 2020 (so forgive me if the context, particularly in relation to the pandemic, is already out of date - I've just been exceptionally lazy in getting around to sharing it!) Below is the story of how the NIWA Wellington Regional Science Fair (a competition open to all students from years 7 to 13 in the Wellington region) went virtual for the first time in it's nearly 60-year history. 


Back at the beginning of March, the Science Fair committee were doing our usual dance of trying to secure a venue for the Fair. But I’d just gotten confirmation from the Dean of Science, in writing, that we could host the 2020 Fair at the Victoria University of Wellington, so I was feeling pretty positive about how this year was going to go... 

After what turned out to be the last physical meeting we had of the organising committee for months, although we don’t know it at the time, one of the committee members, Brian, gave me a lift home, and he told me that he thought this new virus was going to be bad. Really bad. And that the government was going to shut things down. What he was saying seemed completely abstract and unthinkable to me, even a bit alarmist. But as we all now know, the beginning of 2020 was a different world, and one we’re not likely to return to anytime soon.

Cut to a few weeks later, in full lockdown, and we were holding our committee meetings via Zoom. Which was awkward; people were late, people had technical issues, and sometimes those meetings would run on for 2 hours, in part because of the practical delays, but also because we just had so much to talk about. How on earth were we going to host a fair if we were all trapped in our respective homes?

It was always going to be a hard year for the committee. Four significant committee members had resigned the year before, taking with them decades of experience and insider knowledge on how the Fair runs. There was a discussion about me taking over as Chair, presumably because other members wanted to ensure the line of succession by picking someone young... or relatively young, at least. I was flattered to be nominated for the position, but I also felt the weight of responsibility. Not only because my predecessor had been this authoritative, father-figure type, who people trusted and had confidence in, but also because, now, we were suddenly in this unprecedented - what the heck is life going to look like for the foreseeable future - situation, and I was in a position where I had to find answers to questions nobody had ever asked before.

Thankfully, everyone else on that committee is amazing, and stepped up in ways that might’ve surprised themselves, but didn’t surprise me. One committee member, Joji, was particularly instrumental in developing the virtual fair format. He had been researching other virtual fairs and put together a working plan for us to create our own. Joji suggested that all the entries could be submitted in an online format, in the form of PDF/ PowerPoint presentations, and videos. The files would be submitted via Googledocs, and the videos hosted on YouTube (these weren’t uploaded to private channels, but they were only available to view to those who had the correct link). Given that the Uni was unlikely to be opening its doors to external parties anytime soon, and we had no idea how the virus was going to progress nor what level we were going to be in by the time of the Fair, we took a vote in April to host a virtual fair instead of physical one.

This involved taking online various aspects of the fair, from the judging, the exhibition of entries, even the programme. We were also considering how we could host a virtual prize giving and judges’ dinner. Essentially, we needed to ensure that all aspects of the fair were ‘pandemic-proof’, that we could go ahead no matter the alert level. Once we’d decided this, we realised that we could host the fair on any date we chose, because the timing in regard to the venue was now immaterial. We therefore moved the dates back to allow us more time to plan everything. During these planning stages, it was incredibly valuable to have current and former teachers on the committee, who were able to communicate how teachers and students were coping with the change of format, how the process could be made more accessible, and which platforms would be the easiest for them to use.

While still in lockdown, NIWA, our principal sponsor, hosted a video meeting with representatives from all science fairs across the country. A few of us from the committee attended, ready with questions for other committees on the virtual process or other aspects of the administration of a fair in light of the current situation. What we found was that many other regions hadn’t even considered the impact of the pandemic on their respective fairs at all, they were just hoping for the best. Others had considered incorporating some online aspects, but largely they were just planning to postpone or stall depending on the alert level. This was the point where I realised that we were way ahead of the game, which was encouraging, but being out in front also meant we were alone.

We carried on with planning our virtual fair, and I was relieved when a long-term return to Level 1 led to people feeling more relaxed about social interaction and we resumed meeting in person. I felt far more confident dealing with people face to face, rather than over Zoom calls, especially as some members only voice called in, which made it very difficult to follow what everyone was thinking and feeling about our plans. Although, we still kept it so that members could attend remotely as an option, which fell in line with the more flexible working practices that we’re all now used to in our new COVID world. Note that I don’t say post-COVID world, I heard that a few times during those months when it seemed like we'd managed to nearly avoid the virus altogether, as long as the borders remain closed. It was always only a matter of time before it was back in NZ, too. Maybe having most of my family living in a country where the virus has completely taken hold was a constant reminder to me in a way that it wasn’t to others. But still, during these weeks, I questioned our decision to host a virtual fair, it seemed like an awful lot of work to go to if we were still in Level 1 and there was no reason not to have a physical fair. But our guts, and our common sense, kept us moving in that direction.

Then the 11th August happened, Auckland went back into Lockdown, and the rest of the country went into Level 2. It was a sharp reminder of just how not-over this crisis is. While this wasn’t great, for anyone, it did at least fully validate our choice to take the fair online, and made it easier to justify the decision to teachers, students and parents. 

In terms of the planning, we had an idea of where we were going, but we mostly worked out how each thing would work as we approached it. It was a process of constant problem solving ‘we want to do this, but what are the barriers to doing that, and how do we go around them?’ Every committee member was flexible and adapted to new roles and responsibilities. For the online judging, we wanted to host interviews between the students and the judges, just like those that would take place on a normal judging day. We wanted the experience to be as close as possible for the student as to that of a physical fair, we didn’t want them to miss out on the chance to explain their experiments directly, and answer questions on them. We put together a complex timetable, and realised too late, on the day, in fact, that we couldn’t host multiple Zoom meetings from the same account. We had to then call around the schools to cancel them. Which was disappointing for the students, and an inconvenience for the teachers, but ultimately, due to the videos and presentations already submitted, the judges were able to make informed decisions on the prize winners.

Because we were in Level 2 by the time September rolled around, and things hadn’t gotten worse (a sudden return to Lockdown didn’t seem likely), some aspects of the fair were able to run much as they usually do; we held the judge’s briefing and dinner at the Uni as normal. But the Prize-giving was a far more complex undertaking. We had managed to book a lecture theatre at the Uni, but we were restricted to 100 people attending, and we needed to allow for social distancing. This meant we had to limit the number of students allowed to attend, and prevent family members from attending, apart from some limited guest spaces reserved for the top prize winners. We therefore arranged for the event to be live-streamed and recorded, so that parents, teachers and family members wouldn’t miss out. Streaming turned out to be great idea, and we had 50 people watching us live on the day.

Like all things in life, the virtual fair had its positive innovations and its drawbacks. We have learned what we’d need to do differently in future years, and what worked well for the process. The main issue that committee members, participant and sponsors had with the virtual fair came down to the parts of the fair they missed. They missed the sense of community and occasion that a physical fair gives, and the in-person interaction between students and judges. But we now know that we can host a virtual fair, that we can ‘pandemic-proof’ it. And I think parts of it, in particular: the videos created by students, would be fantastic to incorporate into future fairs, whether virtual or physical. It also completely removed the issue of being beholden to a venue, which often has a negative impact on the organisation of the fair. And a virtual format has the the real potential, should other fairs across New Zealand come to the party, of enabling us to host a national science fair. I personally, given the uncertainty of the years ahead for us, feel better knowing that we have a blueprint for an online fair, because we really can’t guess where we might be in 12 months, either.

But the best outcome of hosting a virtual fair this year, was that we didn’t have to cancel it, and this achievement meant a lot to me. In a year full of frustration, disappointment, loss, and confusion, we collectively did one small thing, one tiny thing, that had a positive impact. The feedback we received from teachers was that it was good to have at least one event this year that wasn’t cancelled. And that alone, really does make all the hard work worth it.

I therefore want to thank all the committee members that made this possible: Joji, Brian, Nicole, Sylvia, Nick, Evan, Saptak, Mary Jane, Brenten, and chief judge Bradley.

Find out more about this year’s fair, and our prize-winners, on our website:



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