Ezra Tapper worked for months on his science fair project, seeking the right algorithm that would solve a Rubik’s cube every time. And when it came time Saturday to present his findings to the judges at the Coriell Institute for Medical Research’s annual science fair, the 14-year-old Collingswood resident and Haddonfield Friends School student put on a shirt and tie, set up his trifold on his parents’ dining-room table, and switched on his webcam.
For the first time in nearly four decades of operation, the annual competition organized by the Camden-based foundation was held remotely. The coronavirus pandemic made the usual plan of holding the science fair inside Camden County Community College impossible. So in this time of social distancing, organizers took the competition online with the help of Dropbox and video-chat programs.
Jean-Pierre Issa, an oncologist and the Coriell Institute’s chief executive officer, said fair organizers saw the shift in venue as a learning opportunity for students interested in pursuing careers in a field constantly dominated by unpredictable changes.
“For us, this is an important tradition, and to have this canceled by a health crisis made no sense,” he said. “We wanted to tell kids that this is the time to do science, even if you have to do it virtually. There are always barriers to doing science, and this barrier is no more insurmountable than barriers scientists have to overcome all the time.”
More than 100 students signed up to participate in this year’s science fair, which draws from schools in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties, according to Kayla Frerichs, the fair’s director. Winners in some categories go on to qualify for other, larger regional competitions, which then feed into national and international science fairs. Others win local prizes, including scholarships to Camden County Community College.
Normally, judges meet with the students in person, and interview them after a presentation about the project, Frerichs said. But this year, the organizers had to be creative. Written and visual materials were submitted to the judges in advance, and students were then given 10 minutes to present their work to the judges over a video chat.
Lesslie Montiel, a junior at Camden Academy Charter High School, knew the virtual presentation would be a challenge. So she had a few practice sessions with her science teacher beforehand, trying to shake the nerves that she felt speaking to someone through her laptop.
“Initially I was pretty shocked. I know that the situation with COVID-19 was developing rapidly and to see it affect the science fair and this aspect of my life was really shocking,” the 18-year-old said Saturday after her presentation. “It was pretty interesting to see how it has changed my interactions with other people.”
Montiel delivered her presentation on her project — the differences in taste buds’ sensitivity among different genders and ages — in her bedroom. She hopes to pursue a career in the medical field after graduation, and saw the experience of preparing her experiment as welcome practice.
That was the driving force behind the decision to alter the science fair, rather than simply postpone it indefinitely, said the institute’s Issa.