January 17, 2014

Judge for yourself

By Carl Gustafson

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Last year, on a whim, I volunteered at the Rochester Regional Science Fair. Growing up, I was never in science fairs, and it’s fair to say that when I signed up to be a judge at one, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. As it turns out, science fairs are completely fascinating, and I totally missed out as a kid (way to go, Mom…). That’s what I get for being homeschooled deep in the north woods of Minnesota, but I’m getting off track. Let’s start over.

Last year, on a whim, I volunteered at the Rochester Regional Science Fair. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made and resulted in one of the most memorable moments of my scientific/academic career (honestly, there haven’t been all that many super memorable moments in my scientific/academic career, but hear me out). I signed up to judge the 6th - 8th grade science presentations; in this category, students were expected to spend 12 minutes presenting an original science project that they had developed and performed.  They were to give a powerpoint presentation explaining their project, and would be judged on presentation skill, scientific merit (do they have a hypothesis, do they have controls, is it reproducible, etc…) and originality of the project. Three other judges and I would be assessing the projects for this group, taking notes, and giving feedback. As a graduate student who was, at the time, hard at work studying for several classes and researching how chemically induced hypoxia affected ovarian cancer cellular energetics, free time was hard to come by, but this turned out to be an evening well spent.

After several excellent presentations from various students, our final contestant took the stage. Sharply dressed in a suit coat and tie, and sporting slicked-back dark hair reminiscent of John Travolta in Grease (minus the leather jacket and cigarettes), this young man didn’t waste any time diving into his extremely well rehearsed presentation. Although he seemed to be the youngest of those presenting in his group, the delivery of his presentation was impeccable; he cruised through his material with the suave confidence of a used car salesman convincing some poor soul that “yes, indeed! That ’94 Ford Fiesta sure runs like a champ!” He proceeded unabashedly through vague relationships between nuclear energy production in Germany and corn harvests in Nebraska to finally arrive, and pause quite dramatically, at a chart. Although all of the judges (including myself) were utterly lost as to the major purpose of his presentation and “research”, it was quite clear that this chart was exceptionally important. The chart contained two data points connected by an extremely straight line and was not labeled in any way. He paused for a second to collect himself and coolly stated, “This data is really significant. I mean, it could be a total coincidence, but if it’s not, it’s really significant.”

Ladies and gentlemen, at that moment, I would have bought a rusted out ’94 Ford Fiesta from this young man.

This was the most convincing and enthusiastic 6th grader I have ever met. He was dead set on persuading us of the validity of his study (whatever that was…), and the merits of his ingenuity in designing this project (which were few…) and seemed to be quite sure that he would be successful in that endeavor. His unflinching resolve in defending his research was admirable, although I would very much like to have spoken with his statistician, or at least have seen a p-value. He was the only student to receive perfect scores across the board for “presentation skill” and he certainly deserved them (unfortunately, his scores in “scientific merit” and “originality” suffered dramatically…).

The Rochester Regional Science Fair is right around the corner (February 11th-14th!!) and it’s a great time. The students are energetic and sharp, the presentations are fascinating and the creativity of the projects is mind-blowing (one kid measured antioxidant properties of dietary supplements using apple slices and a color scale…unbelievable). Anyone can sign up to be a judge, and I highly recommend it. It’s a great chance to volunteer in the community and maybe learn a thing or two about middle school science. I learned about enzymes, sound-proofing insulation, water retention correlated to soil density, and maybe something about nuclear energy? Or corn. Definitely one of the two. And it was really significant.

See you all February 11th-14th! If you want to carpool, I’ve got an extra seat in the ol’ Fiesta.

- Carl


Tags: Uncategorized

Please sign in or register to post a reply.
Contact Us · Privacy Policy