Yesterday was a full day indeed. The main event? The California State Science Fair. The venue? The California Science Center (just across the road from USC). Here’s a picture of it in case you’ve never been:
(Click for larger view.) California Science Center (with one of my personal emergency escape crafts cleverly disguised somewhere in the picture – all scientists have emergency escape craft, by the way – along with our plans to take over the world, our lab coat, and so forth…)
The time? 7:00am. Yes, we start early, as there is a lot to do for the long morning. The judges all gather in the IMAX theatre for a briefing about the ins and outs of the organization this year, the times at which various things will happen, and a reminder about some of the finer points of judging.
At 8:00am we broke up into groups of judges who will judge various sections. Mine was Applied Mechanics and Structures – Senior. Here, we decided on our collective strategy concerning how we’ll go around the various displays, making sure at least five judges (there were ten of us in total) see each project once in the first round of interviews. We’ll compare notes during the break at 11:00am, agree which ones we should all have seen – in order to focus on deciding which ones get which prizes or honourable mentions. I forgot to take a picture of our group of judges sitting around the table chatting. Most of the judges in my group were people from the aerospace industry, I gathered. About three or four people were new to the whole thing, and so some of us explained a bit about the things that we ought to be looking out for in the judging. This also (given the section were were to judge, and given the makeup of the judging panel – many coming from an industry where the place where the science and engineering are quite thoroughly – and necessarily – mixed together) leads to discussion about making sure to distinguish between a great science project and a great engineering project. It’s also good to be aware, when making comparisons, of the vast differences in resources that some entrants have access to. These two things, to my mind, are very important (and we all agreed). A kid (especially one with access to lots of resources, for example) can dazzle an unwary judge with lots of fancy cool equipment and build something that is truly wonderful and admirable, but that does not necessarily mean that they would have done as much science as the next entrant who has done some very careful scientific experimentation with a innovative way of answering a clearly stated question, but in a less spectacular setting – perhaps mostly using more affordable household items.
Well, with that in mind, we all went off to meet the youngsters! See the project listings here. This is the best part, of course… talking with all those enthusiastic young people presenting their ideas, their projects they’ve been spending so much spare time on (giving me a pleasant feeling of nostalgia for all the time I spent as a youth building things in my room, and “labs” and “hideouts” as I called the various places I would retreat to in order to make my project plans, take apart radios and other bits of equipment, building all sorts of things….), sometimes with huge amounts of confidence, sometimes with a great deal of nerves, hesitation, etc.
(Click for larger view.) Two winners and an honorable mention. Left is Christoper Lee, who did marvellous work on studying fuel cell physics, middle is Laurel Kroo, who actually won our whole section with her new and highly original design for buoyancy engine for an underwater glider (for exploration), and to the right is Johnnie Kwok, who studied the relative merits of various types of truss bridges…. he’d built 56 of them or so!
One’s role there is to let them speak, mostly, and listen. Perhaps a gentle question here and there to steer them along here and there to learn what they’ve done, to clarify a point or two, or to make a suggestion about something they’ve done (ideas for the next year’s improvements, for example).
This wonderful (but yes, exhausting) time takes the whole morning running from 8:30am to 12:30pm, with a that discussion break in between. We discussed together projects we saw, argued (amiably) a bit about the pros and cons of various ones, and steadily arrived at our list of prizes and honourable mentions. We were all very satisfied with our list, and our duties were at an end.
(Click for larger view.) Two of the groups who had a lot of fun launching things (potatoes in one case – guess which- and bottles of lead shot for the other) over great distances. Names are not in order, but on the Left: Dylan Beatty; Jack Holman; Garrett Morgan and Right: Alexander Berry; Katherine Corradini; Bernard Kozacik
I spotted a number of other USC faculty helping out with this as well. Of course, there’s Chris Gould, who runs so much of the organisation of the California State Science fair, but there was also Stephan Haas and Vitaly Kresin from Physics and Astronomy, who were judging on other sections (various sorts of physics and astronomy topics). I also saw Michelle Arbeitman, a professor from Molecular Biology. This was a particularly nice case, since (as she told me) Michelle herself was one of those enthusiastic youngsters in this very science fair, many years ago.
I wanted to stay and hang out with some of the judges from my section a bit more, and to see the announcements of all the prizes to the assembled students and families (see them beginning to gather for that in the picture below – Click for larger view.):
…but I had to dash off and be all formal and professorial at a three-hour long committee meeting for (and later, with) the Provost, back across the street.
Luckily, I could end the long day with some excellent physics discussion, hanging out with Bee (in town to talk physics, give a seminar the next day (picture right), etc.) in Santa Monica at the Real Food Daily restaurant, a place so intensely focused on being healthy that you leave the place craving something like a Hostess twinkie followed by a coke and a cup of table salt, just to balance out the universe a bit. I’ll have to try a bit more of their menu before I am enthusiastic about it. My Mexican-inspired vegan dish was a bit bland.
Home at 11:00pm. Exhausted, but with a sense of having had a fulfilling day. Crashed out.