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 being 1 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 testing 2, testing methodology and recording, soundness of the conclusions 3, 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 spars 5. 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 CFC 6 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
- Nicely! – Rule 1 is “Don’t Be A Dick”
- 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.
- Did they reach a conclusion that is logically consistent with the results they got?
- And Jaybird: not a volcano to be found.
- 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
- CFC that is already impregnated with epoxy