A Fair Bit of Fun with Science

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:

california science center
(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…)

science fair briefing of judgingThe 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.

science fair students
(Click for larger view.) Overview shot of one of the sections, with poster displays.

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.

  science fair students   science fair students   science fair students
(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).

  science fair students  science fair students   science fair students
(Click for larger view.) Some more groups…. not all in the Applied mechanics section, but I went wandering, as I do.

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.

  science fair students   science fair students
(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.):

science fair gathering together

…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, sabine hossenfelder giving talk at uschanging 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.


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17 Responses to A Fair Bit of Fun with Science

  1. Aaron F. says:

    OOH! Totally off-topic, but is the “observation of a minimum length” on Dr. Hossenfelder’s slide based on actual data?!

  2. Bee says:

    I was quite impressed by some of the kids. It is amazing how serious they are with that, and how much effort must have gone into the preparation. I think this is a pretty cool event. It is so typically American to me, like Cheerleaders jumping on the grass or so. Do other countries have similar things? I know in Germany there is nothing comparable (some schools have similar attempts but its an exception).

    Though I have to say some of the kids also were hopelessly naive. There was more than one guy who I asked where he got this or that information from and he said: from the internet. Well. I believe on the internet one can find support for whatever weirdness one is looking for. (E.g. that the earth is flat).

    I still think PI should invite the kid who measured how efficient different glove insulations are 😉


  3. Bee says:

    Hi Aaron,
    well, yes. The upper right plot shows a deviation of the total cross-section for fermion-fermion scattering (tree level) with a minimal length from the standard model case. One finds (kind of unsurprisingly) that from the collider data (TeVatron) one gets a limit somewhere around an inverse TeV. This is in a scenario with Extra Dimensions (ADD) and a lowered Planck Scale. Details are in hep-th/0305262.
    Maybe my post on the minimal length is also helpful.

    Best, B.

  4. Jude says:

    I’ve been a science fair judge for 8 years at local school science fairs. I love it too, but I was shocked this year to be the only non-teacher asked to judge. The teachers who asked me to judge said that they were so unhappy with the previous year’s judges that they figured I could just do it because I understand the science fair process. “They picked the wrong projects to win,” they explained. (Judges should be given some training before they’re turned loose to judge the first time).

    I knew what they meant, since my daughter’s regional science fair award-winning project almost didn’t make it past the judges at her local science fair (they gave her a third place, but the teachers sent her to regionals anyway).

    The teachers never seem to work it out so that we can talk to the students while we’re judging. Student explanations are an important part of the project. Judging projects in isolation from their creators is not educational. You wouldn’t have this problem at the state level, but at the local level, I find myself explaining basic scientific method to students. “You planted three bean plants and treated each one differently? What do you think about the sample size?”–that sort of thing.

    Judging science fairs is exhausting (especially when you’re the only judge) but lots of fun. Thanks for sharing the experience.

  5. Carl Brannen says:

    The escape pod seems to have 2 seats, so I believe that this identifies it as the A-12 trainer, the precursor to the famed SR-71 blackbird. That I’ve never seen, but the Boeing museum of flight, south of Seattle, has a beautiful M-21 with the D-21 drone, which is quite similar.

    These are stunningly beautiful planes from a distance and are even more stunningly beautiful up close.

  6. Yvette says:

    Hooray for science fair! I miss it now, thanks a lot Clifford. 🙂

    Of course, I feel obliged to Jude’s comments regarding competent judges. My judges understood astronomy (one memorable year we had a retired civil engineer and a mom called in last second because we needed at least two), and first prize went to the kid who said nonsensical things that nonetheless sounded impressive. It was slightly demoralizing amongst us students who knew what was up but couldn’t correct them… but hey, I still remember having the excitement of having an excuse to buy astronomical filters or wrap antenna wire around my room, so I shall not complain too loudly.

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  8. stevenm says:

    “All scientists have emergency escape craft by the way along with our plans to take over the world, our lab coat and so forth…”

    Clifford, my own emergency escape jet craft is always fuelled up and on standby and a crisp new white lab coat awaits neatly folded on the seat. Just waiting now for when you will send out the coded command…

  9. Clifford says:


    Eeeexcellent. And when the coded command comes, don’t forget to sing the hopeful song about the glorious future that we all agreed to sing in unison as we carry out our assignments.


  10. stevenm says:

    Ah, yes…the song:

    Scientists, scientists…we must take over the world;
    Scientists, scientists…our science flag will everywhere be unfurled;
    Scientists, scientists…in unison we stand;
    Scientists, scientists…we will assume command…
    You leaders of the world;
    You have been so conceited;
    Against our knowledge you are no match;
    You will simply be defeated.
    You leaders of the world;
    No matter what you send;
    You cannot win…we are supreme;
    Your time is at an end;
    Go run and hide and try and seal your border;
    But we will prevail…our time has come;
    The Science New World Order…

  11. Clifford says:

    Oh… wait… that’s the national anthem… I meant the other song… you know:

    dah dah dah dum da-dah dum da-dah
    daa daa daa daa da-daa dum dah-daa

    and so forth….


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  14. Tere says:

    Hi! I am the mother of a twelve year old honor student who competes in Science Fairs in his school in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When he was in sixth grade, he won First Place in his school for a project measuring static in several materials and third place in the Regional Fair. Last year, he competed in the area of structures with a project that analyzed the strength of the spider web and did an experiment with LEGO blocks to see whether the one supported with a spider like web would withstand stronger hurricane force winds. He again won first prize at his school and this time secondplace in the Regional Fair.
    This year, he is interested in pursuing a project on electromagnetic levitation and would like to propose to do an experiment on whether gravity could affect the growth of bacteria in Petri dishes. The problem is to have the bacteria experience weightlessness with a gravitational force. However, we have exchanged e-mails with a Physicist from UCLA who was extremely kind to devote his valuable time to answering our questions. I admire that persons such as you and this professor would take time to answer questions from kids that are interested in science. Unfortunately, the topic appears not to be a good one. Would you share w/us your thoughts suggestions on a good topic in Physics that he could pursue?

    We would deeply appreciate your guidance and valuable time.

  15. Clifford says:

    I’ll certainly give it some thought, and get back to you. In the meantime, if others reading want to throw out some ideas too, that might be useful to many. A first port of call is for him to visit the website of the science fair and get ideas about topics from what has gone before. A combination of original thoughts and building on the work of others (not copying per se, but developing things further or in new directions) is how good science is done, and so there is nothing wrong with getting a good idea about what sorts of things others have found feasible. See the link I gave in the post above and go to the lists of abstracts.



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