28 February 2007

The Moulton Journal: science fair, judging, and being judged

While climbing the long and sometimes steep "Rappleman Ridge" (see view, below; so named because Rick Appleman led me up there once upon a time for a few tele runs on a favorite hidden spot) at The Moulton this morning (10 deg F, a little new snow, Blue Extra a little sticky but made for good climbing), I had a good chance to digest yesterday's Science Fair experience.

About 50 high school kids displayed their projects here at Montana Tech. Most projects were from three high schools: Big Sky and Hellgate in Missoula, and Ennis (between Butte and Bozeman). Sadly, there were no project from Butte High. There seem to be some teacher & administration issues regarding support for Science Fair. Too bad, since Science Fair does some good things for kids: gets them to think about doing science as inquiry rather than just learning science from a book; hooks them into a network of mentors that can foster their scientific interests; recognize their accomplishments with scholarships, medals, and various awards; and enter them into a pipeline that leads to State Science Fair, International Science & Engineering Fair, Stockholm Water Prize Competition, Science Symposium, etc.

I'm a science junky, which keeps me going as "Chief Judge" at our regional science fair. Early on, after graduating and working in materials engineering, I realized I liked thinking about science & society and reading about science far more than I actually liked doing science. Science Fair gives me that fix. Even at our little regional competition here at Tech, there are projects ranging from "Toward a more equitable distribution: wealth dynamics for varying saving propensities in a closed market" to "Establishing the connection between eastern Laurentia and Western Siberia by a point-count analysis of rift-related sediments" to "Arbuscular mychorrhizal fungi response to components of global change." Good stuff.

Science fair judging is great. I began judging back in Bradford PA as part of my corporate service to the community obligation. Here at Tech we see really fine projects. This is largely because faculty at Montana Tech, University of Montana-Missoula, and other places such as the national laboratory in Hamilton mentor students. For kids to be competitive in high school Science Fair, they usually need access to cool tools and the guidance of experienced scientists.

Science Fair sceptics dismiss the best students and their projects with comments such as, "Mom did it for them." or "They were like a trained monkey in the professor's lab." Even a brief discussion with most of these kids will quickly disabuse sceptics of this notion. In fact, having talked with a lot of mentors, I've found that mentors are often awed by the Wunderkind's mastery of the topic and (at the same time) a little dismayed by the Wunderkind's lack of discipline in drawing reasonable borders around their questions and hypotheses.

Good judging is crucial to Science Fair. We try to bring out the best in every student's inquiry, challenge their knowledge and conclusions, and open doors to further explorations. At most levels, the degree of agreement among judges is remarkable. Like peer review in academic research & publication, the system works most of the time. At the highest levels, though, it can get pretty bare-knuckled among the judges as they "discuss" which project to name as the overall winner. The microbiologists want to know why a computer simulation of economic choice counts as research. The engineers want to know why a sexy lab technique like primer-based DNA amplification is so special. And then there is the discussion over whether field-based or laboratory-based science is "better." Surprisingly, at some point the dust begins to settle and nearly everyone comes to agreement over why one project is better than another. At the end of the day, judges come away with an enhance respect for what their colleagues in other fields do, and a lot of kids come away with adult validation of and encouragement for scientific inquiry.

Well, I got all that figured out on the long uphill climb, and now it's time for the downhill run back to the truck. Watch out for that big fat cow moose, and for the rather emaciated looking little yearling that is trying to survive its first winter.

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