Sunday, March 09, 2008

Judging a Science Fair

This was something I had never done before. Never as a kid I built one of those toy models and never as an adult I cared to look carefully at them. A week or so ago, I had the opportunity to judge the Alachua County Science and Engineering Fair, where kids from local middle and high schools put of their projects. On stake was invites to the state fair - and it was amazing to see the amount of effort and enthusiasm those kids (and in most cases their parents or teachers) put in.

The day started off with me looking at some of the "Physics" projects - and they ranged from super methodical to interesting to downright stupid. The winner in this category had toy cars of different shapes and sizes in a homemade wind tunnel and looked at those affect the wind flow. It was a pretty neat idea, although not the most conclusive way of looking at that particular problem. Another girl measured how high a dry and wet soccer ball would jump with varying amount of air pressure - again not terribly innovative, but one has to give it to them for the effort. On the other side there were projects where one kid after a lot of measurements concluded that dark colored liquids absorb more light than light colored - oh well, is not that what "dark" exactly means? Then there were politically correct projects, where this guy basically hooked up his dad's generator with some load and ran it till it exhausted 5 gallons of petroleum with different octane ratings and concluded which variety is more economical.

After lunch, it was time to branch out to different areas - and I came across some of really eye catching, albeit useless projects. One involved making a dog smell different foodstuff and record how it reacted. Another one played different sound tracks to a chicken and saw which one got it scared. There was one project where a guy poured different brands of carbonated soft drinks on animal tissue, and predicted comparatively how harmful they are depending on how much the tissue is dissolved. Only one problem though - it also got dissolved in distilled water.

I did not have to judge those though. I was pretty impressed by this project where a photo sensor, depending upon how green the leaves are, automatically started watering the plant. I was not at all impressed where they tested different fishing lines strength - how much weight it can support before they break, and they had no clue how all that would change inside water. I am no expert on fishing, but I always thought there must be some water involved, right?

Many of the projects, across the disciplines, involved comparing commercial products. How long different brands of candles burn, how strong different sunscreen or detergents are or how different cameras reproduce the color spectrum. While these are interesting, I am not fully sure if I would call them projects in the sense of term.

Overshadowing most of those, was this 8th grader, explaining how she made silver nanoparticles and looked at their properties. Wow. I am not sure if I can pull that off even now!