One of the things I do outside of my writing life is to be a judge at a local science fair. The Youth Engineering and Science (YES) Fair is sponsored by the local electrical co-op and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, or AFCEA. Each spring, students in grades 5-12, from schools in the co-op’s service area, compete first in fairs at their schools, unless they’re home-schooled, and the top projects come to the YES Fair.
The judges are all volunteers from the area. Some are active scientists or engineers, some are retirees, and then there are the oddballs like me who have never been a practicing scientist or engineer, but we’re interested in the fields and can talk a good game. (Or as Kristine Kathryn Rusch says, “we play one on TV.”) I’ve been doing this for the last seven or eight years, I guess. Last year was the only one I missed, and that was due to another commitment.
The YES Fair breaks the students into three grade groups: 5th and 6th, 7th and 8th, and high school. My first year, I judged the 5th and 6th grade projects. The next year I stepped up to 7th and 8th, and since then I’ve judged the high school projects. Some of the projects are amazingly good, even at the lower grade levels. Some of the others? Well, not so much. Some–but not all–of the best ones are projects the students have been working on for years, bringing an updated and expanded version of the previous year’s project back for another go.
The worst are thrown together at the last minute… and it shows.
One of the best parts of being a judge is getting to talk with the students. In the morning we just look at the projects, review the workbooks, etc. But in the afternoon, the students are there to discuss what they did, why and how they did it, and what they learned.
Too often we see, hear, and read stories about out of control, abusive, drug-using kids, and it’s all too easy to project that image onto all of them. Talk to the students at the science fair and you’ll learn that there are some amazing young people out there, capable of doing great things.
This year, we had a young lady who did a study of the challenges of building a quantum computer. Another–a freshman!–is in the beginning stages of designing a system that would detect when an infant, pet, or disabled adult has been left alone in a hot or cold car and is in danger. She still has a lot of work to do, as she freely admitted, but the project has so much potential! She wasn’t one of our Grand Prize winners this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she is in the future.
One of our two Grand Prize winners–both of whom will go on to compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Phoenix–developed a way to fight fires… with sound! She still has a lot of development work to do to make it practical, but it works already: she had the videos to prove it.
The other tried to develop a device that would distill water, making it safe to drink, using only focused sunlight and simple, inexpensive materials. His idea is that it could be used in underdeveloped countries where fancy, complicated systems are too expensive and couldn’t be maintained. His project didn’t work well but he has ideas on how to fix it so it will.
Am I bragging on these kids? Absolutely! Will they go on to win big prizes at ISEF? Probably not. That’s not the point. The point is that we’re keeping them interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and as a science fiction writer, and as a citizen, I’m all for that. One day they might even read my books… and tell me all the things I got wrong!