University High School Teacher Whose Students Win Big at OCSEF Explains Tutoring Process

OCSEF’s 2020 Winners announcement revealed that University High School and Villa Park High School are tied at the 1st place this year with 12 awards each. We reached out to Mr. Tim Smay, an AP and CP Physics teacher at University High School and a prominent tutor for student OCSEF projects, to find out how the project process looks from the educator’s side.

“The students need to run their project idea by me before the end of September,” the teacher for over two decades explains, “Most of the students at University High School have good ideas with which to start. After their project is approved, by November, I have them write 5-7 pages of background research that will help explain to me, somebody who has no background knowledge of their project, all that I need to know in order to understand the science behind their project.”

Smay, who’s been coaching students for OCSEF for 21 years, says that the only projects he hesitates to move forward with are the ones involving people’s behaviors or tastes “people are too hard to control,” he says, “especially with the sample sizes with which the students normally come up.”  

Once they turn their research in, Smay “grades” it and lets them know what he needs to know more about or where they’ve gone overboard.  “Basically, if I consider myself a total layperson,” he says, “make sure I understand the science behind their project. After that, for the actual experimentation of their project, they are on their own.  I believe that the teachers at University High School have taught appropriate experimentation techniques and so I let them run with it.”

Mr. Smay brings up the Science Fair in class but it is not a required assignment.  “I let them know that they are able to compete in the IUSD (and subsequently the OCSEF) science fairs and I give them a basic structure of what a good science fair project and board would look like,” he explains. “Other than that, I just speak with them as often as they need for advice. I sit down one on one with each one because everybody’s project is so completely different.

“At our school, we have students that simply love science.  Our science department helps student keep that interest by delivering high quality programming.  Now, after students like Arjun win large sums of money, of course students are more interested in competing but none of them expects to get that kind of recognition.  They do the science fair simply because they love science.  I always advise them to only do a science fair project if the topic truly interests them.  If the topic is not of interest, their project will not be good and they will not enjoy doing it.”