There are several reasons why some projects appear to be judged differently within a scientific category.
1. The person next to you may have won a ‘Special Award’.
Not only are there category awards, but there are Special Awards. The sponsors of Special Awards specify their own judging criteria. Even projects in the same category can be eligible for different Special Awards, so it’s possible that your project wasn’t considered for some awards while the project next to yours was.
2. Also, few people know that the Synopsys Championship actually is three science fairs running simultaneously. For some awards, you may not have been competing in the same science fair! Here are the details:
Organizers of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) let us treat the Championship as three separate science fairs so that we can send three times as many students on trips to ISEF. We are required to pre-assign students to our three “affiliations”, as they call them, prior to judging. So for some awards, students in the same project category may not be competing against ‘neighboring’ projects.
In the end, this is how we are able to let more students receive the opportunity to go to ISEF. We are happy to do this, even if the results sometimes look surprising.
3. Finally, the judges are using the ISEF criteria. They are looking at many aspects of your presentation, and they can score equally a project that is creative and one that has better science. Sometimes the results hinge on the small differences of large scores.
As the quality of projects has increased over the years, the judges’ results have become more difficult for us non-judges to anticipate. Remember, projects done at school are in competition with others done at school. Likewise projects which have had professional mentors or were done at RRIs are competing against the other projects similarly mentored. Competition is very stiff, especially at the higher grades, but the judges are instructed to give awards to only 1 in 3 projects. They select the top 3 of each 10 projects which may all be very good. Their job is to pick the best in their opinion.