Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Encouraging young scientists

Bill Gates and other captains of IT have been complaining for years about not enough science and engineering graduates of US universities. Their two-pronged solution has been to try to encourage more students to major in such subjects, and also to import the best and the brightest from the rest of the world.

One way that industry has been trying to encourage science and engineering careers since the early days of the Cold War has been through local science fairs. Here in Silicon Valley, students grade 7-12 (or 6-12) can enter their local school fair, then go on to the California State Fair, and even on to the International fair (once sponsored by nuclear reactor maker Westinghouse but now sponsored by Intel).

The science fair also has great sentimental value for me. My 8th and 9th grade science fair projects were the most meaningful educational experiences of my three years in junior high and perhaps all of K-12. The latter project — my first computer program, writing a parser in Fortran IV on a stack of IBM punch cards — would set the stage for the next 20 years of my career.

In 1989, I started as a volunteer judge for the San Diego fair that gave me that start, and switched to judging for the Silicon Valley fair when I moved up here. That one day commitment is an easy way for engineers to contribute back to the community to develop an interest by K-12 students in science. After mentioning that interest last fall at the MIT Club of Northern California, I became the club’s science fair coordinator, and prepared a web page listing fairs where our members can volunteer.

Five years ago, parents and one teacher launched a science fair at my daughter’s elementary school, in a community with a large population of IT engineers or (like me) former engineers who later went into management or marketing jobs. For the past three years, I’ve been running the judging and leading the committee that runs the overall fair. The last few days have been a blur as we tried to nail down which students and volunteers would be coming to the fair, and have everything ready for the contestants, judges and visitors.

Tonight was the culmination of all those efforts. We had 101 projects by 128 students, 30% bigger than last year and our biggest fair ever. Two years ago we were unable to fit in the school cafeteria and so had to move to the Almaden Community Center; tonight it looks like we may soon outgrow that.

We had 32 volunteer judges who spent 2-3 hours at the fair, talking to students and awarding prizes. Some but not all of them were local parents. In particular, we had 11 volunteer judges (mostly young engineers) from Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, and five judges from our local high school robotics team.

The event was bittersweet for me. It is a relief to have it over, as this is my biggest volunteer effort ever. On the other hand, this my last year running the fair as my daughter moves on to middle school (although I have offered to help judge next year). As in several previous jobs, I am working hard to document procedures so that my successor will have an easier job than I did.

Local technical professionals don’t have to start a fair to get involved. In fact, on March 18, the Santa Clara County fair for grades 6-12 is being held in San Jose and like other fairs they chronically need judges. For the MIT club, I’ve made a master list of all major fairs in California.

Those who judged last night and at various regional fairs say they find it a very rewarding experience, nurturing young scientific talent for our future.

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