Sunday, February 06, 2011

Beware: science ahead

Yesterday morning, I was a judge at the Northeast Minnesota Regional Science Fair for the 9th year in a row. God, that makes me feel old.

This year, I judged the Environmental Science category. In previous years, I've judged this category, Environmental Management, Earth and Space Science, and Botany. You'll see a lot of the same topics within a category, which is a little strange, seeing as the kids doing them don't all go to the same school. It looked like the hot topic in environmental science this year was how fertilizer runoff affects growth of aquatic plants and/or Daphnia. A couple others tested the effects of various medications on Daphnia survivorship. I guess they don't understand that the environment has a lot more facets than water flea mortality, but I'm not sure that I'd have been able to come up with anything better at that age.

I love being a science fair judge because I'm always learning something new and I get to see some of the same kids and their projects year after year. Pretty strange thing for me to say, seeing how I'm frequently complaining about kids. The kids at the science fair are always on their best behavior and they're very respectful of the judges. Sometimes, you can walk over to a project you're not judging, introduce yourself to the presenter (who is trembling like a leaf in a spring breeze), and the moment you indicate you're not actually judging their project, all that tension dissipates. I like to think that because I'm still one of the younger judges (even after 9 years there), the students feel more comfortable around me. That being said, some of the older judges fail to realize that they are not dealing with their colleagues at the science fair; they're dealing with 7th-12th graders. These kids are still learning. If a 7th grader doesn't know how to run an ANOVA test, don't drag her over to a 12th grader's project to show her "real" graphs. There is no worse faux pas for a science fair judge than to completely demoralize a student who may have been genuinely interested in her topic.

However, you will occasionally run across a student who clearly does not give a single, solitary crap about science, the science fair, or speaking civilly to the judges. These are the kids who do projects on how Mountain Dew affects plant growth and when pressured, tell you they started the project last night. Or the kids who give you a 20-second overview of their project and give one-word answers when questioned about it. When I see projects like this, I don't even fill in the scoring boxes on my judging spreadsheet; I automatically put a "3" next to their name. We're forced to give each project a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place ribbon, no matter how poorly-conducted their project was. I mean, I can understand a kid getting nervous or intimidated and not being able to recite their spiel, but some of these kids aren't even trying. A lot of the time, it's because they've been forced to by their teachers. If someone isn't interested in science to begin with, chances are they'll be even less interested after being forced to to explore whether having short legs makes a person a better runner or if goats are colorblind.

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