The Kids are Alright – 2011 edition

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Once again, I managed to sweet-talk my way into the recent Awards Luncheon for the Dallas Regional Science & Engineering Fair. Awesome, as always.

The choice of introductory speakers was rather interesting, one Misty Giles, who is apparently not only an SMU engineering alumna, but was also part of the cast of Survivor: Panama. Pretty young too. If she was 24 in 2005 for Survivor, then she was born 80-81 or so, which depending on whom is consulted makes her either a tail-end Gen Xer, or a front-end Gen Y. Whichever it is, it’s good to see some younger faces in the chaperone, so to speak, side of the equation. I.e. everyone not a student. Usually it’s all grayhairs. Then began the long list of winners.

When I’m judging at the Science Fair, I don’t really get to see more than the 10 or so projects in my particular section, so it’s nice to see the winners from across the categories. The breakdown is Junior High/High School, then Life Sciences/Physical Sciences, which further break down to:

Life Sciences:
-Animal Sciences
-Behavioral & Social Sciences
-Biochemistry
-Cellular & Molecular Biology
-Environmental Management
-Environmental Science
-Medicine & Health Sciences
-Microbiology
-Plant Sciences
-Team Life Sciences

Physical Sciences:
-Chemistry
-Computer Science
-Earth & Planetary Science
-Energy & Transportation
-Engineering: Electrical & Mechanical
-Engineering: Materials & Bioengineering
-Mathematical Sciences
-Physics & Astronomy (the category I judge in)
-Team Physical Sciences

Each category has a 1st, 2nd & 3rd place winner, who receive a cash scholarship from the event sponsor. All of these are eligible to go to state, and a few are sponsored to participate in the International Science & Engineering Fair. Folks who pay attention may remember Amy Chyao as last year’s winner (visited the White House a few times, was at the State of the Union, likely going to get her own lab before too long…). She came out of last year’s DRSEF, from the Plano ISD.

Which dominated this year, as Plano usually does. The economist in me attributes that to the simple fact that the science teachers in the Plano ISD are incentivized to produce Science Fair participants and winners. The Dallas ISD certainly doesn’t do so, but then again the Dallas ISD is nowhere near as wealthy as the Plano ISD, where the parents are motivated and can afford to ensure that their children have the tools they need for success.

Which is why I was happy that the NSS of North Texas Space Exploration Scholarship went to some bright-eyed and enthusiastic young gentlemen from Greiner Middle School in Dallas for their work on the aerodynamic properties of rocket parts. We had a successful year fundraising through our raffles, so each one got a $175 scholarship from the chapter. They also each got a prepaid one-year student membership in NSS. And since I have a few Lunar Sample Bags left over from last year’s Moon Day, they each got one of those as well, loaded with all kinds of space-related info and goodies.

Why give them a Lunar Sample Bag? I hearken back to the ISU Symposium last year, and the young couple from Colorado who taught in a particularly difficult school district that had to deal with a lot of children of agricultural laborers in town for short periods. One thing they noted in what had to be a pretty demoralizing teaching environment, was that when students took an interest in space topics, there was a notable improvement in academic performance across subject areas. Students perceive the challenge, and that’s something that excites them into trying harder.

So while J___ & J_______ may have done their project on a lark (which I don’t know one way or another as I was not involved in the process), for extra credit or whatnot, having that lark turn into such a cool and unexpected result can only be a good thing.

I’m actually rather envious of the chapter judges. I help all year with the fundraising and donating prizes for the raffles and so forth, and I don’t get to be one of the folks giving it away. Oh well.

One of the ideas I’m pondering for if I get elected Moon Society President is the idea of a matching fund program, where Moon Society chapters would be encouraged to raise funds for a Science Fair scholarship in their local community, and the funds would be matched from the national level. It wouldn’t necessarily be a Moon project, but something space related. That would also burden me with having to raise funds at the national level to cover the ‘cost’ of matching the local scholarships.

One thing I’ve insisted on for the last two years is that NSS of North Texas raise the funds externally and not use internal funds. I was able to get away with it the first year, but this year the chapter overruled me and used chapter funds to cover the administrative cost of the winners going to the awards luncheon ($35, quite reasonable given that we’ve sent two each of the last two years). I did manage to cover their one-year student memberships in NSS personally, but the chapter will probably over-rule me on that one next year. I’m just worried that they’re going to start using chapter funds to match the fundraising sums, or just donate outright, which would drain the treasury before too long.

I would take the same approach at the national level; if I initiate a new project I need to find funding for it. Which shouldn’t be too hard – who wouldn’t want to be associated with a science fair scholarship? In a world of too few really good causes anymore (that aren’t just strip-mining donations to pad management lifestyles), it’s hard to argue with the merits of a solid science fair culture in a community, that community’s region, and on up the administrative levels to the national and international level. I’m not joking here, either.

There’s a lot of lip service about the importance of “STEM education”, but one does have to wonder to what extent folks are actually working towards that end, versus hitching up to the gravy train. The reason I say that is that one of my fellow judges was a recent SMU alumna with a Master’s degree in Engineering who was having a devil of a time finding employment.

I noted to her that an engineering career tends to be more project oriented than career oriented, so find the coolest team/project she can think of and try to associate with it. I also told her to seriously consider international opportunities. New Zealand is going to need engineers in the reconstruction of Christchurch. I saw enormously, megalithically, brobdignagianly huge construction projects in Beijing. Africa is building up their infrastructure. There’s a world of opportunity out there.

I also suggested she submit her resume to the bank. We do have a history of hiring engineering and science types as financial analysts, as they bring a discipline and rigor to the position that is otherwise hard to find.

One interesting note from the fair itself. Well over half the judges were new this year, and the general age seems to finally be trending downward. This is both good and bad, as you want to have folks with some experience judging to share the knowledge of how to do so, which counsels against too high a turnover, but you also need fresh faces as the older judges retire.

If you have a technical background in one of the fields above, please consider judging at your local science fair. It’s an enriching experience, and an easy way to directly contribute to the technical sophistication of your community, your region, and your nation. And look at the smiles on those faces – wouldn’t you want to be a part of that?

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