Thoughts on the Intel NW Science Fair

On Friday, Micheal Klass of Uncovered Earth and I had the chance  to judge the earth science category at the Intel NW Science Fair. We both chose the middle school category and we were subsequently blown away by most of the presentations.

Let me start off with this: these middle school kids are bright, with a few of them being on the terrifyingly smart side.  The experiments ran the gamut from a very simply paper mache volcano to the highly complex numerical modeling of the relation between solar flares and coronal mass ejections (yeah…. I had to have that one explained to me). It was interesting to see the nearly linear relation between complexity of project and the assistance received from someone with at least a college degree.  To insure fairness, we asked plenty of questions to make sure that the students truly understood what they were presenting. This way we could weed out the automatons from those that actually did the work and knew what they were talking about.

At the end of the fair, three ideas came to mind:

  1. We have some incredibly intelligent kids coming up who are going  to be instrumental in helping tackle some of the worlds biggest problems. The enthusiasm for science and the scientific process was palpable that day and gave me hope for the future.
  2. The role of scientific mentors cannot be emphasized enough when involving kids in science. The participants that did the best received guidance from academics who took the time to work with a middle school  kid. Or in other cases had a parent that was fully involved in the learning process.
  3. This last one I write with some hesitancy: it seemed most of the winners came from the non-traditional charter/magnet schools or were part of the talented and gifted (TAG) program. Most of these kids also have parents who work for Intel or other companies that require some sort of degree from its employee’s. I hesitate to write that because it gets into the controversies behind public school funding, academic performance and to a certain extent socio-economic status. I am not an education expert, so I cannot get into the details of what works and what doesn’t. These are simply my observations and not meant to be a statement on the health of the public school system. It is just an observation.

With that out of the way, I want to end on this: science out reach is critical to getting kids excited about science. As I stated earlier the best presentations were those that had a mentor that could guide the kids along through their project, while not doing the project for them.  That outreach is key to beating back the wave of anti-intellectualism that has become popular in the last couple of years.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Intel NW Science Fair

  1. I’ve been involved with science fairs since I was a participant, and I’d say you hit the nail on the head with your three observations.

    But don’t forget that as a judge, you ARE one of those important scientist adults that are encouraging and influencing those kids’ lives. Especially the kids who got there without an adult mentor. It sounds trite, but it is true – I’ve gotten multiple, sincere thank you notes from students months or years after judging science competitions.

    The other thing to remember is that you too can be a mentor to these kids, even though you haven’t got your own education complete. All it takes, really, is an interested adult who knows a little bit more than the student to start with and is willing to learn and explore along side them. Is there any way you could bring a high school student into the meteorite lab, for example? Or if not that, identifying a local middle school where maybe the kids need a bit more mentoring, contacting the principal or science teacher and volunteering to help them next year might make a huge difference in those kids’ lives.

    Good for you and Michael for judging! I hope it will be the first of many such science fair experiences.

    • Such a good point, Anne, about us now being the adult mentors.
      We definitely were focused on making sure that the experience was a fun and encouraging one for the kids. I’ll say that one of the biggest challenges of the experience for me was walking the line between encouraging good science and making the students feel comfortable and accepted so that they’d feel enthusiastic about trying again the following year.

    • I definitely plan on judging more science fairs in the future. I’d be lying if I said those projects didn’t inspire me in my own research and studies.

      I know that the meteorite lab has done outreach and actually one of the curators does a lot of travelling and lecturing at various schools. I’m hoping to get in on that this summer or even at OMSI. My only concern is that kids kind of intimidate me. I know that sounds silly, but I’m really clueless as how to speak with them. I know that if I start working with them on a regular basis, I’ll get over that though.

  2. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the third comment at all. I’ve judged at regional and state science fairs and noticed the same thing. If anything, it is a confirmation of my frustration that many schools are not encouraging and mentoring kids in science. There are some schools that do, but there’s definitely no consistency.

    I really wanted to participate in science fair when I was in high school, but my local schools did not and I didn’t realize that I could probably continue some work I’d done at the local university and present it as a project. There are probably a lot of kids who would love to do it, but unless they’re really driven to find a mentor, they’ll never know what opportunities are available to them.

    • I’m glad to see that my feelings about the public schools isn’t unfounded. It was quite clear that the kids from the magnet/charter schools had the better presentations than their public school counter-parts. I kind of had this moral dilemma of voting for the kids who had more resources to work with. In the end i encouraged all of them the best I could and said I wanted to see them at the competition next year.

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