I spent most of my day yesterday at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science as a judge for the Denver Metro Science and Engineering Fair. I thought the Denver Public School science fair was going to leave me feeling more confident, but I was wrong.
The environment was just very different. At the DPS fair we had to look at four or five projects over the course of two hours. At this fair, it was 10 projects in the same amount of time, and this time I also didn’t have a partner. There were two other judges looking at the same ten projects as me, so it meant we got to chat about them a little, which helped. But I was on my own with talking to the kids, and that was a bit nerve wracking at first just because I wasn’t quite sure what questions to ask. Then again, with 10 projects and only two hours, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to spend with each kid; a little less than ten minutes to talk, and then a few minutes to go off in a quiet corner to write some comments on the scoring sheet.
I’m not the best at talking to people I don’t know, but I think I muddled through well enough once I’d had a couple practice runs. I basically started off by asking the kid to just describe their project to me and tell me why they had wanted to do it. From there, I was normally able to find a couple of questions to ask, like, “How many trials did you run?” or “Which variables did you control?” or even, “If you had this to do over again, what would you change about your setup?” I actually got some extremely good answers for that last question, which made me happy. A big part of this sort of experimentation is running one experiment, figuring out all of the things you did wrong that make your results less than useful, and then trying again with the design flaws fixed.
This time I was also dealing with a higher grade level – the junior division, 6-8 grade – as well, so the projects were understandably more complex. I was put in the physical science category, which I felt a little out of my depth in since I’m not a chemistry or physics person. Then again, we weren’t really dealing with chemistry/physics more complex than you’d get out of your first two semesters, which is still impressive in itself when you realize that it’s middle school students working on these projects.
Aside: Some of the kids I spoke with were as tall as me. This should be illegal.
Overall, the quality of the projects was extremely impressive. I can’t imagine being able to come up with anything as cool as some of the experiments now, let alone when I was thirteen. I’m not going to say anything about the winning or favorite projects at the moment, since I checked the schedule and the awards ceremony isn’t actually until tonight. And while I doubt that any of the three or four people that read this blog have kids that participated in the science fair, if I’m putting this out on the internet I think it’s best to just keep it under my hat.
Several of the kids I talked to pointed to an episode of Mythbusters as the reason they wanted to try a particular experiment to see for themselves. Warm fuzzies all over again for that. One of the projects that I saw (though it wasn’t in my category) even had “Myth Busted” in its title. I was also incredibly happy to see a lot of young girls with some really fantastic projects and a lot of enthusiasm for the scientific process.
I’m still trying to mentally sort through my day. It was bigger, louder, and much more hectic than the other science fair, as one might expect. I’m considering seeing if I can volunteer for the Colorado State science fair. I think it’d be a great experience to spend a Thursday in April feeling completely stunned by how much smarter than me a bunch of teenagers are.