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Science Competitions: Team or Individual?

Science Competitions: Team or Individual?

By James H. Choi
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Many science competitions, such as ISEF and Siemens, let you enter as a team or an individual.   In case of Siemens competition, you must enter as a team unless you are a senior.  Neither competition restricts who your teammates can be; they could be from different schools and different ages.

So how should you enter?  Below are the pros and cons of entering as teams or individuals.  After reading these, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Team Pros:

  1. You get to hang out with your friends.  This is an obvious benefit, but the trick here is that no matter how much you enjoy working together and feel like you work well together, the competition isn’t how much you enjoyed.  It’s decided based on your research results.
  2. The sum of your combined skills might be greater than your individual ones.
  3. Teamwork is superior when each of your strengths are complementary.  If two people know exactly the same thing, there’s no reason to join the force.  One exception is if the research is so great that you need more hands on a team to simply finish the menial work, but this is unlikely in a science competition.  You could also hire someone to do the menial work such as cleaning up, or moving equipment, especially if there would be no point to add this person to your team officially.
  4. A selfish reason: If you don’t know anything about anything, you could fetch a free ride to glory on the backs of teammates who know a lot.  If a team leader offers you an opportunity like this, by all means get on the bus.

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6378458/Column/Info/English/SpecialEvents.gifTeam Cons:

  1. But if you aren’t careful, free riders might get on your bus.  You end up doing all the work while others sit around chatting or don’t even show up.  You won’t have many options in mid course; it is important start with the right team.
  2. Science competition judges expect teams’ work to be higher quality.  It is not our instinct, it is how we are instructed to look at team projects.  When I judge at ISEF, often I see that team work that could have been done by just one person.  When only one member of the team answers all my questions while free-rider-looking members standby smiling, then my suspicion deepens.  The “teamwork” category counts as 20 percent of the score.  These free riders just cost you at least this 20%.  Teamwork being no superior to individual work will also cost you unspecified points at the whim of the judges.
  3. The more people you have, the less likely you’ll find a common time and place you can all meet and work together.  The sheer logistic nightmare could drag the project down.

I recommend first-time competitors start on their own to build these skills. Running into your limitation is a good way to know what they are, and to determine whether you should make up for it, or outsource it.  Great teams come only from great, self-sufficient, experienced students working together.  Team up with someone only if you see a clear gain only for yourself, and know the person either through some vetting process such as car wash, or through a long friendship.  Don’t worry about the others because they wouldn’t join you unless they also see clear gains for themselves.


Categories: Science Competition
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  1. November 27, 2012 at 2:30 pm

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