Sunday, March 17, 2013

Science Fair Judging

Last weekend, I judged my first science fair. 

It might be surprising that I've never done this before: I care about education, about science, about youth having opportunities that ignite their passions... and somehow I've never judged a science fair.  Why, you ask?  High schoolers scare me. I was a real jerk when I was in high school, so it seems fair to assume that high school students just won't be that much fund to hang out with. But, because I need to find some way to get all these volunteer hours, I figured I should do it, even if am killed by uber-cool-kid eye rolls.

I thought the Central Sound Regional Science & Engineering Fair might be a chance to flex my science background a bit and I heard there was free breakfast.  I didn't expect it to be such a great networking opportunity, and I was positively blown away by the student entrants.  But we'll start with the adult experience.  I was on a team of four judges in Molecular and Cellular Biology.  A grad student, a high school science teacher, and a professor/researcher (and me). I was (of course) the only woman, so I immediately felt glad I showed up, since easily half of our students were girls.

While chatting before and after with the other judges, we had a really great chance to share ideas and resources. The teacher was looking for ways to help his students get science fair projects, so we got to brainstorm ideas and resources with him.  And the professor/researcher wanted to know more about my work as a curriculum writer because he is interested in special ed. The point is, the science fair is a cool professional networking venue that really mixes people up across disciplines.

As for the judging, it wasn't hard work.  Talking with students is WAY less mind numbing that your average poster session.  They were excited and nervous to talk to us.  As we were walking through the poster, conveying the very essence of hopelessly lost, students would straighten up as if we might swoop and pepper them with irrationally hard questions at any time. Ha!  The organizers specifically told us to leave all students with a positive impression of their work (you know, to keep them in science).

The students we got to talk to were absurdly sharp. And almost all of them had been performed at one of the research institutes.  This made us skeptical that the students hadn't just shadowed a post-doc for a few weeks and put some mystery figures on a poster.  A few had pretty basic projects, one experiment, n=1 stuff, but frankly not stuff a grad student would suggest. It was clear those students had a lot of ownership in thier projects.  The other were even more sophisticated, stuff that I can say would have been impossible to do in Juneau's science fair.

The student we were most impressed with, from abstract, to the 20 minutes of grilling he joyfully tolerated while we tried to probe the question "is this kid for real?" went on to win the science fair.  His project was about developing a human induced Pluripotent Stem Cell-derived heart tissue.  He had done lots of work, had great experiments and results, and was super excited about what he had done.  He really knew his stuff, how the assay were done, why the assays were done, and how his tests would help inform whether he could build a better heart.  Oh, and he was a freshman AND he had to drive an hour into the city to work at this UW lab twice a week. 

This experience clearly left me excited for the future of science.  It also made me very excited for the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair, April 4 and 5.  If you are around, and want to join in this judging it should be a lot of fun!  You can judge only Friday or only Saturday, if being in Bremerton doesn't work well with your work schedule.

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