I was recently given the opportunity to judge a few middle school science fairs, and I jumped at the chance. Not only because I have never been to one (as I am English I have never participated in one before, either as a contestant or a judge) so I was curious to see what it was like, but also because I wanted to see what fabulous projects the children could design.
I have to say I was impressed. I judged a few different grades, and it became obvious what each age group could effectively achieve. However, in each grade there were a few shining examples of outstanding, novel projects which showed real initiative. I adored the girls who used balloons stuffed with confetti to simulate sneezing and how effective different methods of covering your mouth would be at preventing the spread of germs; the boy who had used multiple mobile phones from different carriers and experimented whether house hold objects could prevent phone signal (a metal bucket prevented one particular carrier, as did burying all of them in the ground!!); and the girl who investigated whether flavoured sugar crystallizes differently.
Each child was so excited to share their work with me, it was truly inspiring. How often have I spoken to various researchers and the spark of interest is no longer there? They are simply going through the motions to pick up a pay check and aren’t sure what the next step in their career is. These children are just beginning their scientific journey and are hopefully a long way from allowing lethargy to sink in.
I appreciated their attempts to describe their experiments in a scientific manner with the majority having the relevant sections represented on their poster (abstract, introduction, hypothesis, materials and methods, results, conclusions). Speaking to each student was also a great reminder about preparation and practice before giving a presentation. Some of the students gave eloquent descriptions and could answer questions with little or no hesitation. Others struggled to even describe the methodology behind their experiment. I therefore have a new appreciation for how helpful science fairs are. Not only do they allow hands on learning of the scientific method and a subject which interests them, but it also enhances public speaking skills, presentation skills and general confidence. I wish I could have had the experience when I was growing up in the UK.
The skills that they are developing continue to be useful throughout a scientific (or other) career. The initiative some of them showed reminded me of a video I have seen where actual researchers at Cambridge University in the UK use Lego to assist them in their experiments ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBEtUJmp05w&feature=youtu.be ). Sometimes even the most basic household object could be beneficial to your experiments, and I for one had never thought of it like that. It has reawakened the possibilities of what could occur in the laboratory and has re-energized my desire for outreach activities to promote science to the younger generation.
I also realized what fabulous preparation it is for potential scientists. I had never done a poster presentation before my final year in my undergraduate degree. I was 21 years old. Some of these children aren’t even teenagers and are already developing skills I hadn’t begun to use 11 years later! That is both shocking and also wonderful that they are getting these opportunities. I hope that the children I met will continue to be curious about science, will apply for summer internships when they are older and will eventually become researchers. If it happens, at least for a couple of them, the future of science is safe, and I am excited to see the discoveries they make.