For once in my life, I was allowed to be judgemental in an official capacity, since I was a judge in one of the many sections (junior applied mechanics/structures and mechanims/manufacturing). (I had a parking decal that said “official judge”! I do hope I kept it….) Chris Gould, one of my colleagues in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is one of the prime movers who works hard to get this enormous enterprise off the ground and running smoothly every year. He was looking for volunteers to help with the judging, and I agreed to help.
It was just great. Picture this. Your first instinct on turning up at 7:00am, and seeing that you have to sit through an orientation speech in a vast imax theatre with hundreds of other judges, is “Oh, boy, this is going to be a long, tiring day”. Your subcommittee of judges then meets to have a little chat about the criteria you’ll use and how you’re going to come up with a scoring system that makes some sense. “A committee, oh great”, you think.
The judges come from all sorts of backgrounds, academic and industrial, and this brings its characters, and its character clashes. Not surprisingly, this meeting takes a bit of time since there are initially as many “must-do” ideas as there are judges, but it gets sorted out.
By about 8:15am you’ve forgotten the initial thoughts and feelings of dread and you realize that it’s just a great thing to be doing! Why? There are hundreds and hundreds of kids wide-eyed with enthusiasm about Science!!! These are the ones who’ve done well in their regional fairs, and now they’ve come to the Big City. They’re all over the place and you can feel their excitement and relish the taste of it because you remember what it was like to go to your first Big Thing and find that there are other kids just like you. You remember what it was like to go up to the Big Scary City for the first time. You remember what it was like to have Someone take an Interest in some Thing that you’ve been devoting your life to for the last year. There are kids with those feelings written all over their faces all around you.
Look at the pictures. You can see it in their faces.
Like I said, there are judges from all sorts of backgrounds and generations. We had a couple of sessions of individually going around all the projects in our section, talking to the young scientists and engineers, gently trying to get them to explain what they were trying to do, what they achieved, what they hope to do next year.
In this task, you fill in their awkward pauses with gentle questions about what their interests are, what they want to be when they grow up, and whether it this the first time they have been to the State Fair. You don’t upset them by being overtly critical, but you do try to make useful suggestions, encouraging remarks, enthusiastic noises. You don’t ever try to say something patronising or false -they’ll spot that a mile off.
One thing that struck me was the vast range of resources that students have available to them to build and analyze these projects. I don’t just mean lots of fancy stuff they can get from an electronics store, or the huge amount of information they can get from the web, but everyday bits of technology we all take for granted that you can find around the house. (Imagine the motion processes you could have studied as a kid if you had a digital video camera lying around that your parents would let you use.) I think this represents a significant change to what was around the typical house not so many years ago. So there was a lot of creative use of such things as scientific and precision engineering instruments.
There were several participants who did not have access to such resources, of course, and it was great that they still got recognised, sometimes shining through. One wonderful thing about several of these cases was how many time you could see great science shine through even though when they did not have the lasers and cameras and computers and powerpoint presentations. Some of these good, plain, smartly designed projects -largely ignored by the representatives of the press of course- form some of my favourite memories of the day. (For example, there was Carolyn Coyle, who spent a large amount of time carefully measuring the torque required to screw various screws of varying diameters and lengths into a plank of wood. No fancy electronics. Her fanciest bits of equipment were a spring force meter, and a measuring tape. But she understood the scientific method, and the role of errors in her estimation of the torque, (not to mention the definition of torque) better than any of the students I met that day.)
The judges’ role was over by 1:00pm, and I wandered around the science museum a bit (which is excellent!) before crossing the road back to work. Overall, the State Fair is a great celebration of science, and a great way for kids to be proud of being enthusiastic about science. I recommend taking a morning off to be a science fair judge in your city or town, if you’ve the opportunity and if you have the appropriate training. Employers are quite sympathetic to this sort of activity, and so you might get the time off, as I learned from the several judges I met from industry such as aerospace, etc, around Southern California. Or just take a sick day and do it.
It is fun and is a great use of your time.
P.S. Don’t forget to
look at the pictures. There are hundreds.