Sunday, March 2, 2014

Austin Energy Regional Science Festival 2014

Bright young minds are always fun to be around. This was my third year judging the junior high school and senior high school entrants at our regional science fair.  This time, I also judged both upper and lower elementary school participants. My area is behavioral and social sciences.  I worked closely with a dozen other professionals as we judged about 70 junior and senior contestants. It is a learning experience for everyone. 
The Austin Energy Regional Science Festival website is here

I had the opportunity to review the works of several young scholars whose research made the awards. Among them were third, fourth, and fifth place middle schoolers Will Pasquarette ("How does the type of music affect the ability to recall a memory?"), Dara Christensen ("How does the sense of smell affect your memory?"), and Mark Holstrum ("Notetaking").  I also judged for seniors Katelynn Marsan ("Effects of Biased Verbal Instructions on Student Performance") and Saloni Gyani ("Alteration of Memory and Perception through Optogenetics"), who took first and second place honors.  Ms. Marsan also garnered a special Superintendent's Award. Ms. Saloni was recognized for a special award by the American Psychological Association.

But "85% of success is showing up," said Woody Allen.  Of the nearly 3,000 entrants, I saw only a few who were unprepared. Still, they showed up, saw the process, learned from their peers, and discovered what is expected. The requirements are not trivial. Students, parents, and teachers are responsible for many significant and official forms and filings; and more often, it is the adults, not the kids, who failed to address the details.  

This year about 800 junior and senior high schoolers
and 2000 elementary schoolers participated.
That speaks to several levels of challenge. Cream rises, and the winners are usually obvious by inspection; but the distance from first to fifth is short, and the gap from fifth to "thanks for showing up" is even narrower. One of the outstanding entrants in one of my sessions was bumped down twice by successive rounds of review by other judges. Nothing was wrong with the student's work. Others were judged to be better.  

Also, it is a fact that schools with fewer resources field fewer contestants. That said, one of my teams was shocked to find that one  student needed to know more about statistics, so she sent emails to all of the mathematics and science teachers in her school, and got no replies. She got better responses from UT graduate students: several of them showed her the math that she needed to teach herself.  

Public school, private school,
and home-schooled students all competed
Another barrier is that sociology is considered the idiot child of the science family with the S in STEM being redundant of TEM. The truth is that social science education includes the scientific method as a rubric, expressly, consciously (even self-consciously), and repeatedly. Moreover, social scientists are taught the evolutions of the paradigms that brought us to our current state. The physical sciences seldom teach the scientific method explicitly. Worse, they deliver a product that is wrapped for consumption as if it were always this way. From Ampere to Gauss to Maxwell to Heisenberg, it is a straight line. They never learn the original statement of Ohm's Law - or that it was rejected by the scientific community for personal reasons.  (See "Is Physics a Science?" here on NecessaryFacts.)

So, while physics and astronomy, the chemistries and the engineerings all enjoy the benefit of judging by degreed professionals, the standards are not so strict in behavioral and social sciences.  

It is true that any literate and intelligent person can follow the judging forms.  The questions we ask and the answers we listen for are easy to understand.  The difficulties come from differentiating among the honored winners, first through fifth, and distinguishing them from the very many worthies who also showed up.  


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