Science fairs are an excellent way for students to showcase curricular and co-curricular competence in STEM fields. Not only do they test your skill of conducting rigorous research, but also your ability to communicate it effectively to an audience.
The Synopsis Science and Technology Championship is one such science fair based in Santa Clara county in California. Apart from being a prestigious science fair in itself, it is primarily popular for being a feeder fair to the International Science and Engineering Fair aka ISEF.
In this guide, we will go through this fair and what it takes to perform well here.
Note: We recommend that you check out our comprehensive guide on the ISEF before reading this since some of it might overlap.
What is the Synopsis Championship?
The annual Synopsys Championship is a regional science fair in Santa Clara County, California that displays work by middle and high school students. The students work independently or in teams to address questions in the fields of Computer Science, Environmental Science, Medicine & Health, Chemistry, Biology, and a half dozen other categories.
The synopsis is primarily popular due to its affiliation with ISEF as a regional fair. Some of you may know that you cannot participate directly at ISEF but have to go through a network of ISEF’s affiliated fairs to reach the finals. Synopsis is one such regional fair. It is affiliated with the Society for Science (that organizes ISEF) and selects projects which go on to compete and win in state and national competitions, including ISEF.
Students present in the junior (6th – 8th grade) and senior (9th – 12th grade) divisions in multiple areas of study. Fair participants are drawn from public, private, parochial, and home schools in Santa Clara County.
How selective and prestigious is the competition?
Practically all feeders to ISEF are selective by virtue of how popular and competitive the ISEF is. However, there are some regional fairs that are known to be particularly more competitive.
Synopsis is one such fair. It is considered to be one of the most famous SEFs because it draws in some of the most competitive students in the country for this initial qualifier. Not only that, students from Synopsis have gone on to consistently perform well at the ISEF across categories which demonstrates the high quality of projects that this fair contributes.
Who is eligible to participate in this?
The fair has an awesome diagram that you can check out to determine your eligibility for this competition.
To summarize, like most ISEF fairs, as long as your geographical location is that of the regional fair and you meet the age and grade requirements, you are good to go.
What do you win?
The fair has multiple awards across various categories and also acts as a qualifier for science competitions other than the ISEF. To summarize the awards can be divided into two groups: category awards and sponsored awards.
Category awards (ribbons, monetary awards, or sponsored trips) valued at approximately $60K are awarded to winners as described below.
Eight to ten outstanding projects in the high school division (grades 9–12) win Grand Prize Awards and an all-expense-paid trip to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Please note here that this suggests that Synopsis actually circumvents traditional ISEF rules and can send students straight to ISEF before CSEF (which is the California RSEF) -- this is worth noting!
Twelve outstanding projects in the middle school division (grades 6–8) receive the Isabelle Stone Award (biological sciences) or the Castro Family Award (physical sciences) and an all-expense-paid trip to the California Science & Engineering Fair (CSEF) in Los Angeles.
Over 90 top projects in the middle school and high school divisions are selected to compete in the California Science & Engineering Fair (CSEF).
Selected winners (approximately 10%) in the middle school division (grades 6-8) are eligible to compete in the Broadcom Masters Competition. This competition culminates with a competition for the 30 finalists in Washington, DC, in October.
SCVSEFA awards First, Second, and Honorable Mention ribbons based on scientific merit. Approximately 40% of Championship projects receive scientific category awards. Grand prize winners, Isabelle Stone and Castro Family Award winners, and GP alternates automatically receive a 1st Place Category Award.
As for sponsored awards, approximately 40 companies and organizations select projects to receive these awards at the Championship. These awards may include cash, tours, and/or tangible items. Judging for Sponsored Awards is based on the criterion set up by the participating company or organization or individual, and any project may be evaluated by a Sponsored Awards judge.
While it may seem that the fair gives out many awards, students should keep in mind that this does not in any way diminish the competitive nature of the fair and the high quality of projects submitted here.
Please also keep in mind that not all prizes hold the same value. For instance, qualifying for the ISEF finals will stand out a lot more in your college applications than an honorable mention.
What are the rules regarding participation?
Since Synopsis is an ISEF-affiliated fair, there is a significant overlap between ISEF guidelines and Synopsis guidelines. If you have read our guide on ISEF, you will find many things in common here.
ISEF is notorious for its rules regarding participation and research which also translates to complicated guidelines for Synopsis as an affiliated fair. At the same time, Synopsis also has some rules specific to the fair. As mentioned in the ISEF guide, this often happens because variations between state and federal laws lead to some additional rules for the regional fair.
We will cover some important points here, but you NEED to go through these rules on your own here. Going through the rules is not just important from a technical point of view but also from a deeper one because it increases your understanding of the competition and it demands.
We are mentioning some basic rules here:
Projects must comply with all local, state, and federal laws as well as SCVSEFA and ISEF Rules.
Projects that are a continuation of a previous year’s research require SRC pre-approval. They must involve significant new work and additional paperwork is required (see Form 1A of the Application form). Only the current year’s research may be in the project presentation.
All MIDDLE SCHOOL projects (grades 6-8) must be done in the school, home, or field. No projects will be admitted for work done in a research institution.
HIGH SCHOOL projects (grades 9-12) may be done in a Regulated Research Institution (RRI) such as a university, college, or professional research institution, provided all rules regarding their use are followed. An RRI project supervisor (PhD level only) should fill out and sign the appropriate forms and they may also be the Adult Sponsor if the high school teacher has not pre-approved the project.
For the 2023 Synopsys Championship the research work must be done between Jan. 1, 2022 and March 2023 (with no more than 12 months total time).
While some basic paperwork applies to everyone, most rules will vary based on the nature of your research. For example, every student has to complete a Research Plan/Project Summary and Approval Form (1B) and review the project with the Adult Sponsor (Checklist for Adult Sponsor). On the other hand, having a Qualified Scientist is a specific requirement for studies involving Biosafety Lab-2 (BSL-2) potentially hazardous biological agents and some other substances. We explain this in more detail later.
In the following sections, we briefly touch upon some other small yet important components of the fair.
Types of projects
Synopsis has different guidelines for you based on the type of project you are working on. These guidelines will ensure that your work meets some minimum requirements:
Science Project: investigates the effects of changes or answers the question “Why?”
Engineering Project: solves a need or problem; includes measures of success.
Product Testing Project: (grades 6-8 only) tests and compares similar items using quantitative endpoints.
Human Participants Project: SCVSEFA no longer accepts Behavioral Science projects using humans. Projects involving humans to test an engineering prototype or app will be accepted if pre-approved by the IRB.
Please read further instructions on all these types of projects. You will find important information here. For instance, if it is a science project, there should be a hypothesis. In an engineering project, you will have to clearly mention a success criterion.
The Synopsys Championship also has 4 Categories and 14 Fields of Study. The four categories are mentioned below:
Non RRI (Regulated Research Institution) Biological Science and Engineering
Non RRI (Regulated Research Institution) Physical Science and Engineering
RRI (Regulated Research Institution) Biological Science and Engineering (grades 9–12 only)
RRI (Regulated Research Institution) Physical Science and Engineering (grades 9–12 only)
The fields of study under these categories can be found here. You will have to choose a Category and Field of Study for your project. This is a requirement!
The application procedure is fairly detailed but straightforward and the information is given below is not exhaustive but summarizes the steps Please make sure that you go through the entire procedure thoroughly.
Online registration: The application starts at the online registration page. The registration must be completed in one sitting, so gather all the information before you begin.
Download and Save your Project Application Form: Synopsis will generate your Project Application Form with your registration information already filled in. This bar-coded PDF will be the first form in your complete application.
Download and complete the required forms: You will have to complete the few required forms as part of the application. Some of these are specific to Synopsis while the other ones apply to it by virtue of being an ISEF-affiliated fair. Please make sure you take this seriously since the last thing you want is for your application to get derailed due to paperwork.
Upload your completed forms to your Forms Folder
Pay and submit: The application processing fee is $20 for an individual project or $30 for a team project.
Like any ISEF-affiliated fair, Synopsis also has lengthy paperwork associated with the fair. Basically, there are two categories of forms that you will have to fill out: required and optional.
The former need to be filled out by all participants in the fair irrespective of the project they are working on. The latter is based on your specific project.
The required forms mentioned above can be found on these links:
Optional paperwork is based on the specific requirements of your project. How do you know if your project will require this? The Checklist for Adult Sponsor (1) lists when you will need to use additional forms, such as 1C, 2, 3, 4, 5A, 5B, 6A, 6B, and 7. The ISEF Rules Wizard can also help.
If an additional form is required, download it from Additional Forms, fill it in and, if necessary, have it signed. When your application is reviewed, the Scientific Review Committee will notify you if other forms are needed.
Scientific Review Committee
There is a diagram to help determine if a project needs SRC pre-approval. However, to summarize, this will be required for most projects involving human participants, vertebrate animals, and potentially hazardous biological agents.
In a science fair, the display of your research is a very fundamental aspect of the entire competition and should be taken very seriously. This applies to not just the visual presentation, but also your verbal presentation in front of the judges. Most past winners have mentioned how they spent a considerable amount of time in this step.
We recommend all interested students check out the abstract database of ISEF to look at the kinds of research that students have done in the past. You can sort by geographical location and subject category to get refined results related to your specific fair.
Let’s look at some of the winning projects at Synopsis to get an idea of the kind of benchmark you should strive for.
Neural Networks Learn Lazily: Improving Generalization and Adversarial Robustness via Learning Capacity-Complexity Constraints by Andy Phung
Explore-and-Fuse: A Physarum-Inspired Approach to the Steiner Tree Problem by Sheryl Hsu
Enabling Ankle-Brachial Index Prediction From Dopplers Using Deep Learning for Peripheral Arterial Disease Diagnosis
After going through these projects, you will see that they all take small and innovative approaches to niche problems. The students take real-world problems in various fields of biology, artificial intelligence, etc, and use a creative approach to make incremental and substantive changes.
They are not aiming to reinvent the wheel here or trying to build something unrealistic like a new jet engine. But within the scope they can operate under, students have figured out significant areas for improvement.
5 tips to win Synonpsis Science Championship
Having a mentor: Having the right guidance can make sure that your time is being spent in the most productive way. We recommend finding a mentor who is well-versed in your chosen field. For instance, if you are interested in researching active pharmaceutical ingredients, having a biochemistry doctoral student might be the best fit.
Take the paperwork seriously: Participation is not possible if you didn't fill out the right forms on time! Not being logistically prepared can cost you a lot.
Spend extra time on the presentation: Apart from the fact that the presentation has a huge weight in the judging criteria, it is often one that many students tend to focus on least because of how focused everyone is on getting the research right. Being a scientist is not just about conducting research but also about communicating your research to an external audience.
Make sure your choice of area of research is driven by pure interest (and not an assessment of what category is easier): Many students often tend to decide what they should work on based on a topic that they believe has a better chance of winning. This is not a sustainable or even a good approach! For a science fair that is this competitive, your area of research has to be solely driven by what you feel passionate about. This will ensure sustained interest.
Avoid certain projects: When you are looking at the kinds of projects that are considered in the Synopsis, please also keep in mind some of the projects that would not work at the fair based on the official guidelines.
Projects that Lack a Measurable Endpoint: Results should be expressed in units of growth, size, mass, speed, time, volume, frequency, replication rate, chemical product analysis, etc.
Overly-Common Projects: These projects may meet all requirements but often do not win awards because they are too commonly encountered by judges. Example: Comparison of plant growth in different fertilizers
Taken from the Internet: Projects taken directly from the Internet are considered plagiarism, and may be disqualified. Judges may identify projects similar to examples posted on the Internet and they will be ranked low for creativity.
Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you’re looking for a mentor to participate in a science fair-like Synopsis or want to build your own independent research paper, then consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program. Last year over 2100 students applied for about 500 spots in the program.
You can find the application form here.
You can see our admission results here for our students.
Manas is a publication strategy associate at Lumiere Education. He studied public policy and interactive media at NYU and has experience in education consulting.