The role of a technical advisor as part of a student team has been included in the Internet Science and Technology Fair (ISTF) since its inception in 1997. Technical advisors were included as an integral part of the program to give students a taste of what it is like to work with a professional in a scientific or technical field. The role of a technical advisor is varied. Students depend on him or her to provide input concerning research, to answer technical questions and help provide direction as the teams build their websites. This year, slightly over 80% of the technical advisors were newcomers to the program; the remainder had participated at least once before.
One of the most time-consuming and frustrating experiences teams encountered in the ISTF was finding a technical advisor who was an expert in the field they were studying and who would provide feedback to their questions. About 60% of the teams that participated in the 2001-2002 ISTF were able to locate someone at a research center, college or university, business or professional association to advise them. Here are some of the thoughts these technical advisors shared with us in the final ISTF evaluation.
Bringing the technical advisor into the loop as teams prepared to participate in the ISTF was altered somewhat this year. Teams were allowed to meet with their mentor or hold teleconference calls with him or her until October 27, 2001. After that date, all communication between the teams and their technical advisors was to be done by e-mail. Many teams, however, had not located a technical advisor by the end of October and so all of their communication was done by e-mail.
Many teams had difficulty locating a technical advisor. The Office of Special Programs, administrator of the ISTF, offered suggestions and advice on how to connect with a professional, but the teams were responsible for the footwork. While learning how to communicate by e-mail and provide a concise but accurate description of what the team planned to do proved to be a time-consuming and difficult challenge, many teams did locate professionals who helped them.
As yet, the ISTF does not have a databank of professionals who can be relied upon to act as technical advisors. This is in part because, until projects are submitted for enrollment, we have no way of knowing what kind of experts teams might be seeking. In the early years of the program, there was heavy emphasis on the National Critical Technologies: Information and Communication and Living Systems (including a wide range of topics devoted to health). This is no longer true. Projects this year covered all of the National Critical Technology areas.
We continue to ask those technical advisors who have participated in the past to let us know if they are available to help again next year and we are always searching for people who are interested in on-line mentoring.
Once the October 27th deadline passed, all communication between advisors and teams was to be done via the Internet. This proved challenging for all involved as there were times when e-mails had to be sent back and forth to clarify what information was needed. Also, many technical advisors often felt that they were not used as fully as they could have been. As one professional put it:
"I would have liked to [have] received more emails with the team's progress and any questions they have. Also I would [have liked] to know more of the project's content."
Still, another technical advisor stated: "Communication is important only if relevant information is exchanged. Communication for communication's sake is not worthwhile."
While we have counseled students in the program not to "bug" their advisors with too much e-mail, it appears that the teams and the technical advisors need to work out between themselves what is acceptable in terms of exchanges.
Many advisors suggested that teams consider sending a weekly report or update to the advisor. Others asked about the possibility of students providing a timeline that the team would draw up showing the technical advisor what the team had accomplished in working toward their goal of completing their project.
Though there is a training guide for technical advisors attached to the ISTF website, latecomers to the program were not always aware of its existence. Those who did view the training materials (about 65% of the technical advisors), felt that the information there was somewhat to very useful. They also offered suggestions to the Program Office about improvements both in the training materials and how to improve the role of the advisor and the students. These are all being given careful consideration.
The Internet Science and Technology Fair begins at the start of the school year each September. An ISTF calendar is posted at the website at the beginning of the year giving an outline of what the Program Office expects. However, whatever way students and teachers choose to spend their time working on their project is beyond of the Program Office's control.
The ISTF has consistently suggested that each team make up a timeline for their project using the Content Guidelines and the components listed for their grade level as an outline for planning how to spend their time. While in theory, this sounds very sensible, in practice it may or may not have been done. To a student beginning the ISTF in September, February seems very far away. But with the demands of other classes, outside activities, perhaps jobs, and vacation downtime, the five or six months of school time are quickly pared down.
Specific suggestions on how a technical advisor might proceed to work with his or her team will be added to the training site and these suggestions will be reinforced on the student and teacher informational pages.
Also, both students and technical advisors have suggested that teams might need more than one advisor-especially on the high school level. Students on the high school level work both with technical information and the application of business principles and could well benefit from advisors in both areas of expertise. Look for updates on this area on the ISTF Fall website.