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Reflections On The Science Fair

During the first weekend in April, I got to be a judge at the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair.

The fair ran Friday afternoon for kids in grades K-5 and all all day Saturday for grades 6-12.  The mechanics of the judging was pretty straightforward and in many ways similar to judging I’ve done with FIRST.  Judges are broken out into teams of 2 or 3 and assigned 5 exhibits to evaluate.  Before judging begins, all parents are ushered out of the room (even for the K-5 kids) and the kids are on their own.

Judges are then given a certain amount of time (various by grade level and judging round) to listen to the kids exposition, and to ask questions.  Judges then discuss the projects and score the effort on a 5 point scale.  Each project is judged on its own, and although you are not supposed to see it as a competition between the projects you review, you can’t help but have some projects set watermarks in your mind.

Overall, it was fun.  I was pretty impressed by a lot of the effort the kids put forth, and by and large, the kids did the work, with parents/adults only acting as advisors or contracted labor (e.g. handling dangerous tasks the kids weren’t ready for).  Since the event was held at the Bremerton, WA High School, I decided to just stay the night in Bremerton, rather than take the ferry back to Seattle and the bus home from there.  Luckily, being retired means base privileges, and the Navy Lodge is clean, well appointed, and affordable.

Finally, I remarked on this before regarding the FIRST program, but I noticed it here as well – 3D printers really do open up a lot of avenues of exploration for kids.  Being able to print out a model that before would have required skills and machines kids just don’t have adds an interesting dimension to these events.


Day One: The Cuteness

On Friday, I was assigned to judge the Kindergarteners and First Graders.  The hardest part of this task was not giving everyone a 1st place award because they were all so damn cute!  I mean that seriously, they all tried really, REALLY hard and made a great effort considering their age and the fact that they were being1 interrogated by 2-3 older adults.  At this level, you aren’t scoring them on anything groundbreaking, but rather you are looking for presentation (both visual and oral), originality of the hypothesis they are testing2, testing methodology and recording, soundness of the conclusions3, and ability to answer questions regarding their project.  That last bit is how we find out how much of this project is the result of adults versus kids, since if they can’t answer simple questions, chances are they weren’t very involved in the learning that has to happen as part of the effort.

After we scored the first round, we all had to sit down and write out some comments that the students would get.  It was compliments and criticisms, with a whole “Write two good things for every bad” kind of philosophy.  Was pretty easy for the little kids.  After that was round two, where the projects with high scores (i.e. a 4 or a 5) actually got judged against each other.  This was much more challenging in that you really had to pay careful attention to every element of the project.

We took it all pretty seriously, too.  During the second round of judging, there were seven of us going over some of the best from the first round, and we had it down to two, then proceeded to have a 15 minute round table discussion over the merits of a project examining pulse rate in kids who exercise, and a “Will it float?” that was really well done.  It wound up going to the heart rate project, but it was a near thing.


Day Two: The “Holy Crap Kid, How Are You Not On A Watchlist?” Day.

OK, I’m being a bit facetious with that heading, but only a bit.4  These kids are older, more refined, much smarter.  This was the state science fair.  These kids were bringing their ‘A’ game, and most of them had a hell of an ‘A’ game to bring.

My first round of judging was High School Freshmen and Sophomores doing engineering projects.  We had five assignments, and two were no-shows, so we wound up with three to judge.  The three very naturally fell into a “first, second, third” ranking, and although we weren’t required to rank them like that, sometimes you just get projects that just evaluate like that.  I’ll say more about the third place project later.

The second place project was a good idea, but incomplete due to a major equipment failure that couldn’t be resolved prior to the fair.  That failure wasn’t the kids fault, but we had to judge on what was in front of us, not what should be in front of us.

The first place project was right up my alley, and it’s a good thing for that kid that we judge in pairs.  The project was testing NACA wings for performance characteristics.  It was a solid project, but testing wings that have been tested to death by college students the world over isn’t very original.  To me, it was the Freshmen equivalent of “Will it float?”.  The performance characteristic he was looking at was a bit more original, but not by much.  He didn’t demonstrate a very good understanding of the fluid dynamics or airfoil theory involved, and was thus unable to make very good predictions based upon his results, but…  Where he shined was in the effort he put forth (which my partner pointed out to me as I expressed my apathy).  He built small test wings and got wind tunnel time at a local institution, and he got his hands on some Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) software and figured out how to use it well enough to run the wings in his computer well enough to show good agreement with his wind tunnel data.  His methodology was spot on, as well, and he even made a very solid guess as to why some of his data did not agree.  Once I came down off my high horse and remembered he was a Freshman in High School, I could see the merit and gave him top marks.  Seriously, it was some solid work.

During the second round, I was tasked with a special award relating to flight.  For special awards, the judge is not assigned projects, but is instead given a topical description and a count of the number of prizes to give out.  The judge then surveys the field and finds projects which fit within the description.  Then we do our judging (get the spiel, ask questions, etc.).  I had four prizes to give out, and found three projects I felt were worthy.  Two involved wings and showed good methodology and inquisitiveness.  The projects were interesting, but what sold me is that both kids were making a real effort to understand aerodynamics, were being very resourceful in their efforts, and had very sound and definitive plans about what they wanted to do next to explore further.

The project that I was, hands down, most impressed with was the eighth grader who was comparing the material strength and weight of aluminum versus carbon fiber composites (CFC) for wing spars5.  Not only did this kid have a clean, professional delivery for the presentation; they also designed and helped to build a very nice testing rig; got their hands on an aluminum I-beam and used the rig to bend it to its yield point; and did all the math to compute the yield point of the aluminum and CFC I-beams.  I looked over their notes, it was all there.

Doing that math is no small thing.  Well, let me be specific.  Doing the math for deflection of a cantilevered beam is pretty straightforward. You can see it here.  Even computing the moment of inertia for the beam is pretty straightforward since the cross section is constant along the length.  No, the impressive bit is figuring out the material properties for a CFC beam, because a CFC beam is not a chunk of material, it’s a bunch of flexible woven sheets of CFC ribbon all laid together with the ribbons oriented to each other at different angles in an I-beam mold, then impregnated with epoxy and baked in an autoclave.  The calculations that allow an engineer to determine the material properties of such an I-beam are a set of healthy matrices that have to be worked.  It is, for the most part, straight up linear algebra, but some pretty involved linear algebra.  Nobody actually does such calculations by hand, and this kid didn’t, but they did program the matrices into MathCAD, which is no small thing for an eighth grader.  I’m sure the kid had help, but they also demonstrated understanding of the matrices well enough that an adult didn’t do the math in the kid’s stead.  And the kid did this for multiple CFC beams with varying arrangements of the lamina.

The only thing missing from this project was a test of the CFC beam.  Getting PrePreg CFC6 isn’t that hard, but building a mold for it, along with the vacuum system to compress the layers and an autoclave to bake it, that’s asking a lot of an eighth grader.

I hope that kid got more than the one award from me.

Those were in no way the only projects.  I talked to kids who were doing some very smart work in robotics, control systems, bio-chem, nuclear reactor control, etc..  One high school senior had done a statistical regression regarding Zika outbreaks in an attempt to track the movement of infections and find source locations to target pest control efforts.

I almost wanted to offer some of these kids a job right there.


Coda Primo: Women in Science

You’ll notice that up above, I was very gender neutral.  Partly this was to help maintain anonymity of the students, partly it was to further this point.  I think guys still had the edge among the fair participants, and judges, but not by much.  This is good. I’m very much of the opinion that there is zero gender advantage when it comes to science, at least biologically.  Women are just as good at science as men are.  They may shine in different disciplines, but in the aggregate, they get the job done.

Of course, how society treats women in science is still something of an issue, especially in academia.  How society treats young girls interested in science and math is, I believe, still even more of an issue.

The kid who did the CFC beam project?  Girl.  Not a classic tomboy either, at least not to my eyes.  Perhaps I’m just getting old, but she seemed every bit a girl’s girl.  Jewelry, stylish clothes, phone with lots of pink and sparkly stuff, had lots of friends at the fair with her, etc.  Everything you’d expect of a typical American eighth grade girl, except she’s doing college math and building heavy duty testing rigs.  Perhaps things are different now in middle school, but when I was that age, a girl doing that kind of engineering would face considerable peer pressure not to.  Even a guy would, but it was a lot worse for girls.  So either things have changed drastically since I was a kid (which is great!), or this young lady had a lot of support from family and friends to do this (which is also great!).

But I have my doubts.  One of the judges I worked with was a young woman in college who worked campus IT support, and was telling me about people refusing her help and telling her male colleagues that she wasn’t very good, even though she tried to give those people the exact same assistance as her male colleagues, and some of those people she tried to help were women.  I remember when I was in campus IT and watching female co-workers experience similar things (women who had largely taught me the stuff I needed to do my job, so they weren’t ignorant).

But then I get a reminder of how far things have come, as one of the other judges related a story of her time as an undergrad back in the 80’s, where there was one engineering professor who would not speak to the women who took his class.  The only way those women could get questions answered was if they wrote them on a note and got one of the men in the class to ask the question for them.  If you couldn’t make friends with the guys in the class, you were in for a rough semester.  Imagine such a professor today, how quickly would they be relieved of teaching duties and encouraged to retire?

Anyway, the girls at the fair held their own.  It was good to see.


Coda Secondo: Education Opportunities

Remember the High School project I gave a third place to?  It really wasn’t very good.  The effort was good, but the work was weak, the presentation was unprepared, and the final result was a bad bit of engineering.  This was the State Science Fair.  These kids were supposed to be the cream of the crop, winnowed from regional fairs on down.  Seeing something like this, I was frankly surprised.  In my comments to the students, it was hard not to be overly critical.  I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to say, and how I wanted to say it.

After I turned the paperwork in, I learned that for any student from a school that is not in a science fair conference, this is their first, and only, science fair.

Well ain’t that just shit.

Also, while talking to these kids, I learned that many of them have schools with very robust programs.  One group I talked with had built a wind tunnel and a flow tank with a budget of $200.  When I asked how they managed that, they told me that they scavenged a lot of material from previous school shop and science projects, so the $200 was just for stuff that wasn’t already on hand.  And the program advisor helped a lot too.

That’s cool as hell!

Take a kid from a small school and toss them into a competition where they are up against kids with considerable resources, and advisors, and a couple of rounds of previous judging that they could use to refine and correct their work, and they got two chances, slim and none.  I felt really bad after that, it’s something I’ll keep in mind for next year, although it’s impossible for a judge to know if a given project has been through a few fairs prior to this one.

After I got off the ferry in Seattle, my wife picked me up, and on the way home, we talked about this disparity.  It made me think about our education funding model and how unfair it can be, how it really strikes at the whole “Equality of Opportunity”.  What really drove it home was, as we passed the elementary school in my neighborhood, I read the sign in front, which informed me that the annual silent auction fundraiser had netted the school $70K.

That’s the kicker, isn’t it?  The schools in my community are already well funded, and the community is more than willing to come together to boost that funding even more when asked.  I’m starting to see the value in having schools funded equally from a big pool of money the state distributes.  Poor schools can use the infusion of funds to improve, and wealthy schools, they’ll hold silent auctions and raise big pots of money because those parents are highly involved.  It even helps the idea of vouchers, since if a school is bad for a kid, it’s not because it lacks for funding, but because perhaps the school is poorly run (in which case an exodus of students can be a red flag for the school board or the state), or maybe it’s just a bad fit for the kid (it happens, and a kid should not suffer because of egalitarian ideals).

Equality of funding still would not guarantee every school would be equal, as money is but one factor that determines the efficacy of a school, but it is a factor that can be levelled out of the data, which would leave bare other factors to be addressed, ones that would not be able to hide behind the claim of inadequate funding.

Of course, such a funding model is a political football from hell; and I can imagine that even if such a system were put into place, some people would constantly lobby for schools to not be able to hold fundraisers, or for any funds raised beyond the state stipend to be added to the pool, which would undercut the whole thing in a heartbeat, because the wealthy involved families would, if forced, just segregate those extra resources away from the school itself.

Still, the current system has a serious problem maintaining equality of opportunity.  If we are going to insist on there being public schools, we should be looking hard at how we fund them.

Image by woodleywonderworks Reflections On The Science Fair

  1. Nicely! – Rule 1 is “Don’t Be A Dick” []
  2. Is this something they thought of, or did mom and dad help them find the idea in a book or on a website?  Do you know how many variations of “Will it float?” I saw?  Luckily at this age, their ability or willingness to lie about it is pretty much non-existent. []
  3. Did they reach a conclusion that is logically consistent with the results they got? []
  4. And Jaybird: not a volcano to be found. []
  5. Wing spars are the internal wing structure that extends from the wing root at the fuselage out to the wing tip.  Wing ribs attach to the spar at regular intervals along the length []
  6. CFC that is already impregnated with epoxy []

Staff Writer

A Navy Turbine Tech who learned to spin wrenches on old cars, Oscar has since been trained as an Engineer & Software Developer & now writes tools for other engineers. When not in his shop or at work, he can be found spending time with his family, gardening, hiking, kayaking, gaming, or whatever strikes his fancy & fits in the budget. ...more →

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40 thoughts on “Reflections On The Science Fair

  1. ” Women are just as good at science as men are. They may shine in different disciplines, but in the aggregate, they get the job done”

    I’m just not sure that women, in general, are as interested in science as men are.

    Our engineers are majority male. There’s probably 25-40% women-I’ve not looked at the stats. All of them are VERY good at what they do, but the real geniuses are two or three men who’ve been around for 40 years.


    • This is just a hypothesis, but I suspect than the people who’ve been around longest are much more likely to be the best talented. And if they came into their careers at a time when it was much harder for women to enter the field, then those people would be most likely to be male.


      • I agree. But these guys also exhibit levels of intelligence much higher than the average engineer, male or female, we have working here, so it appears that they are pretty damn sharp regardless of when they were hired.


        • I think it is subjective. If a woman is in pursuit of a particular objective within science/engineering she will excel just as far and fast as a male counterpart. Self motivation can push individuals far beyond set norms in the field and can drag technology into more knowledgeable areas.


          • Ya know what “Self motivation” is synonymous with?
            Sex Drive (specifically male) — brains are funny, funny things, and that’s not nearly the extent of how fucked up we are.


              • Throughout his life, poor Sigmund could never get people to pronounce his name right. (They kept pronouncing it as “fraud”).

                You may be dealing with a bit of a selection bias, in terms of who you encounter.

                And humans are monumentally fucked up anyway (brain-damaged is a good word for it).


                • I’ll cop to the selection bias. I encounter plenty of lawyers and judges, but also lots of brokers, accountants, academics, physicians, and most appropos to the OP, engineers, pilots, and scientists. Sex and gender matter way less than intelligence, effort, and experience; these are all occupations that demand substantial education and qualify as “professions” as much as they are also “jobs.”

                  It’s fair to say, though, that at the very top levels of these professions, it’s still mostly white doodz. It’s still unusual, bordering on rare, rare to see shareholders or partners in large law firms who control large books of business or significant internal clout be anything other than white men. Not unknown. So too with other professions I encounter: the glass ceiling is higher than it was a generation ago, but it’s still below the penthouse suite. Perhaps a woman becoming President of the United States will milepost that changing, too.

                  Administrative support positions I encounter (e.g., receptionists, clerks) are still mostly women, though. In the past few years I’m starting to see more men in these kinds of support positions. No difference in ability to perform, of course, and this too is part of moving towards equality.

                  I exempt “paralegals” from this analysis because there is a wide spectrum of duties that are assigned to people who are assigned those titles. I notice that firms who delegate more routinized, fill-out-the-form sorts of paralegal work tend to have almost exclusively women in that role; firms that expect higher degrees of autonomy and exercise of independent judgment to their paralegals (and presumably which compensate accordingly) are much closer to gender parity (though there still seem to be more women than men).

                  So yeah, there is some filtering going on with my vision of the world. Absolutely. From what I see, though, there is zero evidence that women are unable to do any of the things that men are doing, and every bit as well (or not). We’re not at equality yet, but the arc of history is clear and completing that transit appears to be more a matter of time than anything else. And in most other things, lawyers observe the trailing edge, not the leading edge, of the waves of cultural and economic changes that affect people generally. It makes me regard statements along the lines of “girls don’t like science as much as boys” as antiquated.


            • I would call it “animus”. And yes, women have it, but they aren’t supposed to let you see it. Not in public. Many women have internalized this, and have been made to believe that they shouldn’t have it. And that’s a problem, too.

              Though, I’m pretty sure that you have not internalized it, or at least have done a lot of work to free yourself from it. That’s assuming you are female, you appear to present as such.


    • Your statement, “women might not be as interested in science as men are” is one of those things that might well be true of the world As We Find It Today, but not at all representative of What Might Be Possible.

      There’s a definite cultural bias that says Math is Male and Humanities are Female. This is show with research, including implicit association tests and so on. The gender of the subject doesn’t matter, everyone exhibits this bias to some degree. And so yes, there is a cultural transmission between girls and young women that doing all that math and engineering and so on isn’t very girly.

      This makes the one student Oscar writes about important. By cultivating a highly gendered self-presentation and a highly gendered social network while doing some hard core math, science and engineering, she is undermining the Math is Male trope in a way that a young woman who neutralized her gender presentation (you know, pants, short hair, using the color blue rather than pink, etc) would not. So, while this sort of thing first struck me as odd, I welcome it now. It isn’t the only strategy, but it’s a good one.


      • Nails it.

        IIRC it’s been shown that women tend to prefer the biological & social sciences over math, physics, & chemistry due to an inherent tendency towards nurturing, etc. But from what I’ve read, no one is sure how much of that is an actual biological tendency & how much is social pressure (i.e. it’s more socially acceptable for girls to want to be doctors, nurses, biologists, etc. as opposed to mathematicians, engineers, chemists, etc.).

        Women who prefer the physical sciences over the biological get painted as odd.

        I saw some of that at the fair, girls who presented as just “One of the guys”, but I saw a lot of other young women who were not trying to subdue their gender.

        And before anyone asks about it, there were no girls trying to sex it up. There were quite a few female judges, and our assignments were pretty random, so relying on sex appeal to gain favor would be a crap shoot. Everyone was well dressed.


        • Were there any boys trying to sex it up?
          (Note: apparently the same techniques work on gay guys and straight women, so… judging purely by the sex of the judges is probably not the best way to judge potential effectivity of “sexing it up”)


    • Life ain’t liberal, people ain’t equal, and there really aren’t two sexes.
      Most of the folks you see who are in any way smart are intersexed, to one degree or another (and are fucked up in the head, because that’s part of how you get to be smart).

      Women, in general, aren’t interested in science. But men, in general, aren’t interested in science either.


      • Real geniuses don’t need experience to be fantastic at things that they’ve never done before.
        Check out Persona 4’s character designs if you don’t believe me. (google image search for ’em. See how many fashion don’ts you can spot — they’re actually done quite well, but the creator wanted a challenge)


      • These two guys have been around a while yes, but I’ve encountered enough anecdotes of their brainstorming sessions conclude that their intelligence is significantly higher than the mean for males.

        I also wasn’t trying to say that men are smarter than women in absolute terms, I was saying that men’s intelligence range greater over the curve, encompassing more stupider guys and more highly intelligence guys, while women’s seems to be more narrower.


        • I can speculate on why, depending on how you think that narrow range falls relative to the range for males.

          My suspicion is, if you were to somehow measure, that women have a narrower range that falls on the high side of the male range. Not because women are necessarily smarter, but because men would (still will, to be honest) tolerate a lot more stupid shit from other men than from a woman.

          When I was in the Navy, my rating (job classification) was opened up to women. During the last few weeks of my ‘A’ school, the first two women to make it into the GS rating started school (and boy, is that a story for another time). After my motorcycle wreck, when it was clear I wasn’t going back to my unit any time soon, my old crew got a woman as my replacement, and man did I hear about it. How stupid she was, how many mistakes she made, how she was a danger on an LCAC, she shouldn’t be a GS, etc. Thing was, the unit had their fair share of men who would doing crap far worse than anything I heard about this woman, but they weren’t considered a “danger to have on an LCAC” or someone who shouldn’t be in the rating, even if no one wanted to crew with them.


          • It is… roughly, true, the idea that “men” have more geniuses than women — there are more paths towards being a genius from the XY set than from the XX set (where we ought to bear in mind that geniuses are intersexed in the brain).

            And yes, more men tend to be LD and intellectually disabled than women — and there are a lot more of those than there are of geniuses of any stripe, so men are actually statistically worse than women at many things.

            But, um, the tricky thing is — for nearly everything, we don’t need geniuses. And guys have a notable tendency to be worse at details and safety than women do (this is somewhat irrespective of intelligence).

            Women make better programmers, better doctors, better nurses — and better engineers.


    • As I said:

      But then I get a reminder of how far things have come, as one of the other judges related a story of her time as an undergrad back in the 80’s, where there was one engineering professor who would not speak to the women who took his class.

      So 30 years ago, engineering colleges still had teaching faculty who viewed women as unworthy to learn the discipline. You think that doesn’t factor into it?


      • This is one reason why I think we’re going to have a hard time clearly separating variables in the “Why don’t women go into science?” question for a good many years. Your decision to go into an industry is based partially on the state of the industry and the views of society when you start your education, so there are a bunch of feedback loops going on. Even if science and tech were 100% woman friendly starting today, it would be years before the number of women in those industries settled to their new natural averages. Maybe that new percentage is 30% women, maybe it’s 70% women.

        It’s similar to the “Why so few female executives?” question. Part of it may be a current culture of exclusion. Part of it is probably that executive traits like decisiveness and assertiveness are frowned upon in women. And part of it is that to become an executive, you usually need to spend years working your way through other management positions and being promoted by more senior executives, so the time constant for cultural change is very long.

        When people were giving Jerry Seinfeld grief for not having women on the first season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, there was a big discussion about whether he was sexist for not thinking women were funny and for having very few women in his circle of comedian friends. That could be part of it. I don’t know Jerry Seinfeld that well. But Ari Shaffir said something like, “It doesn’t necessarily mean he thinks women aren’t funny now. It could just mean that the comedy club booking agents in the 1980s and early 90s when he was making his oldest comedy friends didn’t think women were funny.”


              • I like Bob’s Burgers, but mainly because the cast is good. I’ll take a look at anything Eugene Mirman or Kristen Schaal are doing, and I’ve liked Jon Benjamin since Dr. Katz (which I sorely miss). But Archer is just dense with joke writing. At its best, it can be relentlessly funny in a way not a lot of other shows can.


      • It seems to me that there isn’t a set of hurdles to be jumped, but a racecourse where you can only see the next jump after you clear the previous one:
        – Educational: You don’t get any opportunities because you can’t get the training
        – Structural: No one hires you
        – Traditional: You can’t progress past a certain point because (it is believed that) you can’t (lead others, pass a non-normalized test) which is considered to be necessary
        – Soft skills: You lose out at higher levels because others had better networking opportunities earlier in their careers

        Felt most by trailblazers, as to a first approximation the best solution for each hurdle is a critical mass of people passing the previous one.

        For example, I don’t think it’s entirely accident that we have a serious female Presidential candidate coming out of a cabinet post – at just about the time that we have had enough current and surviving former female cabinet members to form an informal network, with an institutional memory for survival strategies and the like, so that new members of the club don’t have to deal either with being inundated with crap or deriving from scratch ways to handle the crap. And can just get on with their careers.


    • I went to engineering school in the 80s (electrical power to be precise), and, through some fluke, in our group of about 40 people (electrical power ain’t the most popular major) about 25% were women. It was indeed a total fluke, since the average for the classes above and below us was about two women per class

      Contrary to what you might think, electrical power is very math intensive (linemen are not college graduates, college graduates don’t climb pylons), and in those days, computing was revolutionizing the field. Women in our group were at no disadvantage, and were quite successful, to the point that our Dean, also one of the most active and favorite lecturers, said in class that the women were kicking ass (in a more formal and appropriate language I cannot recall now).

      Regretfully, few of those women remain in the field today. One of them is now a very successful and powerful executive in a multinational Engineering and Construction firm (*), and a couple more remain in middle management in utilities or consulting firms, but fully adopted the mummy track. But most left to engage in part time jobs or to be fully housewives.

      One other of them has an interesting story too. She was burned by her own success. Having lead the EE discipline team in a three year refinery project, she was struck by the client’s request that she was to be the lead EE in their next project too. She was burned, resigned, went to business school, graduated with the highest grades (being one of the oldest in her class), and is now a prominent banker at Citibank, specializing in energy customers.

      I think part of the problem with women in engineering, is the (I believe mistaken) perception that those careers are not very compatible with being a wife and a mother, and therefore tend to avoid them. Having said that, I notice that women are very prominent nowadays in environmental engineering, but many of those come from biology, or perceived soft fields like urban studies.

      (*) Mary (her real name, hehe) is more remarkable because her husband became disabled in an accident, and cannot work any longer, and she was able to juggle her career with taking care of him. However, they never had kids, for reasons that they didn’t disclose


      • The problem with the mommy track is that academia can actually be worse than industry for female engineers/scientists who want kids. A woman who takes time off for kids can lose out on a lot of research opportunities, and that loss can extend far beyond the time she may take for maternity leave. A lot of women have reported feeling sidelined until their kids are all in school, basically treating them as unreliable researchers until the kids require less daily care. This is often independent of how much spousal support there is for the childcare, and I suspect it’ll persist until there has been enough generational changing of the guard to kill off old beliefs regarding how effective a parent can be at work.

        And, of course, the students who a trained in such environments pick up on that, and internalize it, and the wheel keeps turning.

        Of course, some women, when they have kids, just want to be stay at home moms. Nothing wrong with that either.


  2. I’ve judged History Fairs–skits, poster/diarama presentations, video documentaries, and research papers–and by far my favorites are the non-research papers, because then I get to meet the kids in person and hear them talk about their project. Sometimes I got paired with a judge who was overly critical or worse, wanted to show how much he/she knew about the kid’s subject, even though at the judges’ orientation we’re all told “the interview is the time for the kids to show off, not to be criticized. Any criticism should be in the comments you write” (and of course, follow the “two good things for every bad thing” rule).

    Judging research essays is the more challenging and frankly not my favorite, although that’s what I’ve been doing the last 10 years or so. (It fits more easily in my schedule, because I can spend an evening at a judging event where it’s harder to go to the actual fair, which is on a weekend). It’s there I see the biggest disparities between schools. We don’t know which school the essay writer comes from, but it’s pretty clear that some have better training than others.

    I find it’s much harder to put on my “these are middle schoolers and high schoolers and shouldn’t be judged as if they were graduate students” hat with the essays than with the other projects. Perhaps that’s because as a middle schooler/high schooler/college student/adult, I’ve never been able to make a very good presentation/diarama, act well in skits, or make video documentaries and therefore am much more impressed by even mediocre work in that arena. But I think it also helps that I get to meet the kids in person when it comes to those projects and not when it comes to essays.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this.


  3. I’m not a science guy, though I am definitely an admirer. With that said I just want to say how thoroughly I enjoyed this post. Your observations show a very measured and unbiased assessment of the event, IMO, and I commend you for that.

    As a father of two daughters, the youngest of whom may not be a great fit for traditional higher education, I’m thinking about what you had to say about women in science as it might relate to other fields. For example, some of the trades. Electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc. If I had a teenage son and mentioned learning a trade he might at least consider it. I tell my daughter and she rolls her eyes. I suspect that would be a similar experience for many parents. That’s not pressure coming from people already in the field but from the girls themselves. Is there any of this dynamic in the sciences? Is the opposition coming from both directions?


    • The pressure comes from a lot of angles. A big part of it is a lack of role models girls can relate to. The girl in my post, I suspect, had a parent or close family member in the sciences who probably cultivated an interest within her. And this is not limited to girls. Boys will avoid roles traditionally seen as a female role absent a role model who can help them break out of that kind of thinking.

      So for your daughter, if she knew and respected a person in the trades, someone who showed her such work is not beyond or beneath her, then that possibility can be opened. And the thing is, that person need not be of the same gender, although that helps. They just need to believe themselves that gender doesn’t matter, and be willing to share what they know.

      Also, skilled trades are no longer limited to carpenter, welder, machinist, etc. There are whole fields of para-professionals that don’t require a college degree.


      • Some years ago, I was part of an equestrian team (I was the oldest!!!) and there was a girl in the team that was finishing high school, and had no idea what she wanted to do in college.

        I told her my “women are good engineers” spiel, how successful they can be, how interesting the work is. And then she left for college, left the team, and I didn’t hear the end of the story.

        Her mother emailed me some months ago to let me know that she is graduating this coming May with her M.Sc in Industrial Engineering, and already has a job lined at Tetrapak. She wanted to share it with me because Caroline (her real name) always says that I was the one that prodded her to at least consider an engineering major


        • I always love a “positive influence” story. So much better that the “warning to others” story I have regarding so many of the people I grew up with…


  4. I have to admit that I hated the science/engineering fair the year I was forced to participate. Even then, my interests were slanted towards math and algorithms. Not something that you get much support for in a small town in Iowa. Of course, there wasn’t enough computing power readily available then to do anything embedded, which might have interested the teachers and/or judges (as well as me). And I’ve always disliked being forced to compete in academics. Enough so that I disappointed both the math and computer science departments at the U of Nebraska, declining to be on their competitive teams when asked when I was a senior.

    It sounds like there were some projects that leaned more that way, which pleases me.


    • Oh, I think you would have loved it. One I recall seeing (but not diving into) had something to do with using cloud based resources to process reactor telemetry and initiate control commands. Another was linking aerial and ground based drones together for search and rescue (tell the network what is being looked for, the aerials spot it, and the ground based ones make contact on the ground).


  5. The way that I have seen yield strength & shear strength tested is by a device with a big hammer-looking weight that swings down and smashes it in two. The weight is attached to a dial, and the dial has two needles. The one stops at the yield strength, and the second stops at the shear strength.
    This is not a matter of calculating those values, but of proving materials conform to specifications.
    I have no doubt it would work with the carbon fiber.
    All it needs is a big enough weight.


    • Shear is tested that way. Tensile & compressive strength use a push-pull rig (usually hydraulic). Bending, what the young lady was testing, can also be done with a push-pull rig with a slightly different configuration.

      What she did was build a lever mounted at the top of a frame. One end of the lever was attached to the free end of the cantilevered beam, the other had a sand bag on it, that was slowly filled with sand until yield. Then the sand was weighed.


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