Saturday, April 12, 2008

Prize winning (age appropriate) science

Although I have a backlog of topics, my blogging this week has been deferred as I led a group of volunteers to put on the science fair at our local elementary school. I was on the committee that created the science fair four years ago, was co-chair last year and (titular) sole chairman this year (although the committee of four spread the work pretty evenly).

As with last year, my main role was coordinating judging. This year we had 27 judges evaluating 71 projects by 97 5-11 year-olds. We didn’t have science fairs when I was in elementary school, but in junior high school I participated in the Greater San Diego science fair and even won the jr. high math category twice — the second time (1972) with what I think was the first-ever winning computer project at the GSDSEF.

I started judging in 1989 at the regional championships for middle school and high school students, and I have judged almost every year since — first in San Diego, now in Silicon Valley. My only concession to burnout is that three years ago I switched over to judging for the local IEEE chapter, in part to try to become more integrated as an IEEE member. I find the professional society judging to be less stressful and also more fun, particularly when I get to be a judge for SWE (no, not dressed like Jack Lemmon), but I’d switch back to category or sweepstakes judging tomorrow if they needed it.

I’ve roped a number of my science-oriented friends into judging, and to a man (or woman or teen) they all seem to enjoy it. Working with motivated kids is fun, and I’m sure many of them also see themselves at that age (I know I do). It’s also a public service: even though the Cold War (that spawned the SD and other fairs*) is over, the perceived need for the US to grow a supply of scientists and engineers remains. Improving K-12 science education is a part of any such plan.

(*Interestingly, while the regional San Diego fair was started in 1955 at the height of the Cold War, the national fair — the Westinghouse now Intel Science Talent Search — was started in 1942 during World War II).

With ties and team projects, we handed out 17 ribbons last night to 11 projects in 3rd, 4th and 5th grades. The best 3rd grade project ran a doorbell using a lemon battery, while the 4th grade project built and calibrated a thermometer. I didn’t see the 5th grade projects, but both were in life sciences — one extracting DNA from strawberries, the other measuring the effects of disinfectants on bacteria.

What was also interesting was that half of our six-girl prize-winning robotics team entered the fair, and all three won prizes. One of those winners was my daughter (and her robotics teammate). While I was proud of their success, it was a little embarrassing because only the judges knew that we assigned judges so that no parent knew how their kid did until the results were announced. (As you might imagine, there was a considerable overlap between volunteer judges and parents of contestants).

However, I think the program is also a testimony to public schools at their best — highly involved and educated parents who want their kids to succeed. As in companies, a culture of inquiry and achievement is important for elementary schools. Unlike many places I have visited in the East and the South, we are fortunate that many successful Californians send their kids to public schools and then pour their energies into making those schools successful.

Photo of prize-winning thermometer construction taken by Oliver Huang.

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