Technical Advisors

Teachers responded to Final Process Evaluation questions concerning their experiences and feelings before, during, and after the 2002-2003 ISTF Competition.

Preparing for the Competition:

While about 36% of the teachers in this year's competition had entered teams in prior years, 64% were new to the ISTF.

When asked why they decided to enter teams in the Internet Science & Technology Fair, one teacher, new to the ISTF, commented:

"I think it is a fantastic way for students to learn about so many things, from what is involved in science research to working within a group."

Teachers new to the program were especially concerned about the time factor. After reviewing the ISTF web site, they were aware that this was not a small, one-time event that students could master and complete in a week. The ISTF competition allows a full four months for students to develop their project and build a web site on which to detail their work.

This year a major problem identified by teachers, as well as students and their technical advisors, was helping teams find a focus for their topic. It appears that the more a team prepares for entry into the ISTF, the better their chances are for a successful final entry. Many teachers had their teams spend two to three class sessions discussing possible projects, while over 54% stated that their teams spent more than three class sessions or meetings discussing possible topics.

As one teacher who has entered teams before put it:

"We had a phenomenally difficult time with a topic this year. I didn't think they would ever settle in and focus on a single direction."

One teacher even provided us with a process her teams had used for selecting a topic. Teachers new to the 2003-2004 ISTF might well consider using this process in the next competition.

"I had each student look through the technology areas [NCTs] and select 3 areas, a sub-area for each and a technical application for each. I then put them in groups according to their choices. In their groups they then looked at each other's choices, discussed topics, and then chose one topic. They had to turn in a profile report that included their tech area [NCT], sub-area, technical application, list of possible areas for research (keywords), and possible types of mentors that they could locate."

Students, eager to move on to developing their web site, may see preparation for their project as wasting time but teachers who have returned with new teams over the years have learned that this preparatory time is vital in helping students focus on the single most important part of the ISTF - developing a thoughtful and meaningful use of a technical application to solve a real-world problem.

Developing Projects for the Competition:

Different sized schools faced different kinds of challenges while working on the ISTF. Smaller schools with a limited number of computers and limited Internet access had to work around other classes and groups in order to develop their web pages. Teams from larger schools with students drawn from a wider area found it difficult to meet together. But the biggest challenge for teams from both small and large schools was the need to connect with a knowledgeable person who would act as their technical advisor.

While many teachers and students have requested that the ISTF Office help them find technical advisors, it has always been a fundamental premise of the program that students should be responsible for finding professionals to act as mentors for their teams. We know that this is a major hurdle for middle and high school students -- addressing professionals whom they do not know and asking for assistance on a project. However, results show that about one-half of the 2002-2003 teams were successful in finding a technical advisor.

After reading Component 1, Step 1 of many of the final entries in the 2002-2003 competition, the ISTF staff believes we have identified why students may have had a difficult time finding professionals who would take on the role of technical advisor.

Often a team's problem statement was either too simple or too broad. When completing Step 1 of the first component, many teams did not address the National Critical Technology, the sub-area the team was working in or the technical application the team thought would help to solve the problem they outlined. If such information were included in teams' requests to professionals asking that they become technical advisors, the professionals would be able to see that the students were performing serious research. Such information also gives a engineer or scientist the opportunity to decide whether they would be a good "fit" for the team.

Those teachers whose students did find technical advisors were well aware of how important these mentors were. Over 59% felt that the technical advisor was very valuable. As one teacher put it:

"I did not have mentors last year for the teams. This year most of the teams had mentors. They really helped in making this project successful for the students."

Completing the ISTF Projects:

This year, teachers faced some problems over which they had no control such as network and server problems within their schools. And some teachers learned that fewer teams or teams with three to four members would be easier to manage. When asked to rate how they felt about their students' experiences with the ISTF, percentages supplied by the teachers ranged from 45.5% who felt their students were more confident to 86.4% who acknowledged that their students were more aware of the impact a particular technology had on their lives, and were also better at working together as a team.

Again, we know that the ISTF is not for everyone. Many teachers new to the Fair may have felt overwhelmed. However a total of 72.7% of the teachers reported that they would be entering the 2003-2004 ISTF. Of the remaining 23.3%, many felt that time constraints and other science commitments such as local science fairs would keep them from entering. One teacher who took on the project and won't be back left us with this note:

"I am retiring from teaching and I hope that another teacher continues with the ISTF tradition at our school."

And, even though approximately 73% said yes they would participate again and 23% said they would not, 91% of all the teachers polled said they would encourage other teachers to participate!

As a final piece of advice to teachers considering participating in next year's competition, here is what one seasoned veteran of the ISTF had to add:

"Begin early and make sure your students follow a fairly rigid timeline. Help your students narrow the focus of their projects early on. It might be helpful to do some preliminary activities that are smaller in scope to give your students some practice with the process of selecting and researching a topic, identifying a problem, developing a solution, and putting the information together.

We wish to thank all the teachers who participated in this year's ISTF for their thoughtful evaluations. We look forward to having you with us again in the 2003-2004 ISTF.