Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Scientists of the Future! Thursday Only!

This week, the annual Intel International Science and Engineering Fair is at the San Jose Convention Center. The fair brings 1,500 high school students from 53 countries who compete for $4 million in awards and prizes.

The fair is open (free) to the public on Thursday 9am-9pm, with student contestants present at their projects from 10am-2pm.

I spent Tuesday night and Wednesday morning judging science fair projects, as one of 100s of special judges (not counting 1000+ regular judges). Although I have judged county science fairs for the past 22 years, I found the projects really fascinating.

In the best projects, the students were completing what could be a senior (undergraduate) thesis, or even a master's thesis. Even for the ones that don’t reach that level, the sorts of problems they choose — and the solutions they found — are stimulating in a way that you can’t get by looking only a products that make it to market.

The fair is run by Science for Society and the Public (a DC nonprofit) with named sponsor funding by Intel as part of its (admirable) education initiatives. However, Intel was almost invisible: beyond some Intel T-shirts it otherwise lacked an obvious presence.

Instead, the company that was most prominent was the “premium sponsor", i.e Google. It was showing one of their (once top-secret) Street View cars at the center of its booth, as well as peddling various software (Apps, SketchUp) and SaaS offerings.

Overall, Google’s presence suggested a calculated effort to convince these smart kids that working at Google is the ne plus ultra. Was Intel absent because it’s not hiring? Because it no longer has the slack resources to be actively involved? Or because it was outmaneuvered by Google?

The awards are handled out Thursday and Friday, and then the kids fly home. Next year, Los Angeles will host the fair, as part of a three year rotation with Phoenix and Pittsburgh.

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