Regional Science Fairs Bring
OAR Communications Intern, Jessica Harper
School is back in session for NOAA scientists across the nation. Only now, they take seats behind judging tables instead of wooden, pencil-marked desks— all in an effort to introduce a new generation of science lovers to their profession.
“We try to encourage the students,” said Aberson, who like Friedman, judges at the Broward County Fair every year. “If we see students whose projects might not be perfect, but they show enthusiasm, we might let them visit our lab or give them a subscription to Weatherwise Magazine.”
Murillo, who judged middle school students at the 2009 Miami-Dade County Science Fair, agreed that encouragement is crucial.
“I see it as a way to give back,” she said. Murillo praised the fair as showcasing, “The best of the best,” and said it is incumbent on scientists to share themselves and their resources with newcomers.
“I got my start participating in science fairs. It was something that I was always interested in,” she said. “This gives students an opportunity to apply their interests as well.”
“The relationship doesn’t stop at judging,” said Friedman. “We like to talk to the students, and one thing we find in talking to them is that some don’t always apply the scientific method. So, we walk them through the process.”
Like Friedman, Barbara Shifflett, who works at the Air Resources Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., judged first and second graders for the 2010 Loudon Fair in Loudon, Tenn., on May 3, also supports the practice of introducing children to science as early as possible.
“It gives us an idea of where our kids are headed,” said Shifflett. “The competition instills in them this love of science and curiosity so early. One second grade boy’s project focused on extracting DNA from strawberries and blackberries. His sister has MS, so her condition inspired him to learn more about the role DNA plays in that.”
The 2010 Loudon County Science Fair included students from kindergarten through fifth grades. Shifflett judged first and second grade competitors in the Demonstrations category, and helped select five Grand Champions out of 16 entries.
Shifflett became involved with the fair soon after a Loudon County coordinator asked her to replace a judge, who unexpectedly cancelled.
“This judge, Greg Mills, an Assistant Manager for Science at the Department of Energy had told the coordinator that I could possibly fill in for him, as I had shown an interest in judging in past,” she said.
During the judging, Shifflett was struck not only by the thought and thoroughness that these students injected into their projects, but also by the maturity they exhibited during their presentations.
“This one girl, a second grader—she was very cute but also very forthright,” Shifflett said. “It’s not easy being that young and having to interact with adults, but she did a great job.”
Shifflett said she saw shades of herself in one young competitor whose project focused on Optical Illusions—a topic that has always fascinated her.
Apart from uniting veteran NOAA scientists with young science enthusiasts, the fairs have also opened the floodgates of networking, something Shifflett noticed at the Loudon fair.
“I was able to meet and develop contacts with school administrators. I talked to them about NOAA and said, ‘We have these resources. Would you like them?’ I see the fairs as an opportunity to get our resources to schools. That type of community outreach helps them, but it also helps NOAA,” said Shifflett.
Hank Vanderploeg, a research ecologist at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab in Ann Arbor, Mich., who has served as a judge at the Southeast Michigan Science Fair for more than 20 years, said the competitions serve as springboards for young science lovers.
“These fairs can be a tremendous shot in the arm for getting into a good university, which could then lead to a good job,” said Vanderploeg. “It’s unfortunate that the budget deficit has hit the schools so hard. Participation has dwindled as a result.”
Vanderploeg said while he cannot pinpoint exactly how he became involved with science fair judging because he has been doing it for so long, GLERL employees are encouraged to participate in science-oriented community and school-sponsored events whenever possible.
“I used to be a member of Sigma Xi, a nonprofit scientific research society, and they are active in this area, especially at the university,” said Vanderploeg. “Also, one of our former retired employees is actively involved in the fair and may have recruited GLERL folks.”
Like Vanderploeg, John Augustine, a meteorologist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., who has been judging science fair competitions for more than 10 years, was also recruited. It all began when his neighbor, a teacher at Eisenhower Elementary School in Boulder, asked him to judge the school’s annual competition.
For the last seven years, he has also judged elementary and middle school students at the Boulder County Day School science fair, a competition he calls, “one of the most valuable experiences a student can have.”
“They take everything they have learned about English, communication skills and the scientific method and put them all together,” said Augustine. “In your job, you have to carry a project from beginning to end. The same process applies to completing a science fair project.”
Augustine said he remembers one competitor, then eleven or twelve years old, who created an instrument that measured sunspots. The amount of detail she infused in her projects impressed Augustine most.
“As a Sophomore or Junior in high school she built a chamber to hold liquid and used blue dye to visualize the convection patterns within liquid,” said Augustine. “She controlled the heat distribution of the liquid with a homemade circuit that controlled heaters and electronic cooling placed at various levels of the chamber. Then she did several experiments with her device to study the convection patterns under various heating profiles in the chamber. She referenced all these scholarly journals and, I thought, did amazing, graduate-level work.”
The level of enthusiasm competitors exhibit when presenting their experiments can also impress the judges.
Minnesota Sea Grant’s Cindy Hagley, who judged the Northeast Minnesota Regional Science Fair in Duluth, Minn., on February 6, 2010, said the joy these budding scientists display when presenting their projects often surfaces as one of the most memorable and rewarding aspects of the judging experience.
“There was this one student who designed a potato shooter. That’s a fairly simple project, but he was so enthusiastic about presenting it,” Hagley, an Environmental Quality Extension Educator for Sea Grant, said. “It’s not just about the stars.”
The Northeast Minnesota Regional Science Fair accepts entries from students from grades 7-12. These students attend a hodge-podge of public, private, parochial and home schools and live in Carlton, Cook, Lake, St. Louis, and Pine Counties. Minnesota Sea Grant makes a monetary donation to the fair each year.
Hagley became involved with the fair after being contacted by the Association of Women in Science (AWIS), a nonprofit that seeks women scientists to judge science competitions.
Hagley said these science fairs not only give young people the experience of enjoying science, but provides them character development as well.
“For some, it’s something that can build self-esteem,” she said.
Hagley said that the students’ level of excitement quickly grew infectious.
“When the judges saw the competitors were so excited, they became excited too,” said Hagley.
All seven OAR scientists plan to participate in next year’s competitions.
July 28, 2010