My first science fair

As a judge, at least. I know I did at least one science fair when I was in elementary school, which involved an extremely lame experiment that had to do with getting mold to grow on bread. I wasn’t all that excited about it. Now I can look back on my lack of enthusiasm as a wasted opportunity, but I think I turned out okay.

I was actually supposed to judge in a school science fair a couple of weeks ago. The night before was when the Stomach Virus Fairy visited me, however, and I was in no condition to go. So this was my first one.

The judging actually went differently then I expected. We were each assigned a grade, and then put in teams. I ended up being very grateful for this; a big part of judging a project is asking the kid questions about their project, and I didn’t really know where to start. My partner, Shannon, is an old hand at science fairs and knew exactly what sorts of questions were appropriate to ask the kids. I ended up being assigned to the fourth grade projects.

Looking around the room, though, there were some pretty cool projects to be seen. You could tell a lot of these kids were seriously jazzed about their experiments and had put a lot of thought and work in to it.

My personal favorites:

– A project exploring whether cats have a color preference, which included photographs of the two adorable experiment subjects, Pirate and Lucy.

– A project about the power of suggestion (regarding things like pareidolia) where the hypothesis was (paraphrasing a little): “Using the force of my personality and their trust in me, I will cause people to give me the answers I suggest.”

And then of course, the project that ultimately won first place for fourth grade. All of us noticed the project board right away because it looked super good and professional. After our first two kids, Shannon and I stopped and looked at the board a little closer and noticed that the experiment was about the way non-Newtonian fluids react to pressure. Both of us immediately thought, “We so hope we get to talk to this kid.”

We did! We’re so lucky. The kid, named Roger, that did the experiment has got to be the most well spoken fourth grader I’ve encountered in my life. Hell, he was more coherent and well-spoken than a lot of the kids I’ve met at college. Shannon quizzed him unmercifully about his experiment, and it became very apparent that he was deeply interested in what he’d done, and that he also really understood the subject matter. The part that really just blew me away was when he talked about the two non-Newtonian fluids he used – ketchup and water mixed with corn starch. We asked him why the two fluids had reacted so differently when he tried to stir them quickly, and he told us that he’d been confused about that at first, then had done more research and discovered that the ketchup must be a shear-thinning non-Newtonian fluid, while the water with corn starch was a shear-thickening non-Newtonian fluid. And then explained the basics of what shear force is.

Sometimes I really worry about the future, particularly seeing the hit science often takes in public schools. Meeting kids like Roger – and pretty much everyone who had made it to the district-wide fair – gives me hope for the future. There are still boys and girls out there that are really interested in science and excited about exploring the world around them.

One of the other incredibly cool things that I just have to share – at the beginning of his discussion, I asked Roger why he’d decided to do this experiment. He told me that he’s a huge fan of the Myth Busters and had seen them run across the water/corn starch fluid in their episode about ninja. And that the third phase of his experiment, where he put the different liquids in to a speaker cone to see how they reacted to loud music, he’d seen on The Big Bang Theory and thought it looked really cool, so he wanted to try it himself.

I hope wherever they are, Adam and Jamie and Bill Prady are feeling a big warm fuzzy. There are amazing little kids like Roger out there watching and being inspired to try out the science. That’s surely something to be proud of.

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