Beaufort News

Volunteers have fair judging down to a science

Form left to right, judges Carolyn Ogren, Walt Ding and Scott Hamlin look over a science project by Hilton Head Preparatory students Russell Freed and Ellie Nixon on Tuesday morning during the school's science fair. The students' project looked at the quantity of detritus in water samples around Hilton Head Island.
Form left to right, judges Carolyn Ogren, Walt Ding and Scott Hamlin look over a science project by Hilton Head Preparatory students Russell Freed and Ellie Nixon on Tuesday morning during the school's science fair. The students' project looked at the quantity of detritus in water samples around Hilton Head Island.

They are chemical engineers, physicists and physicians.

Graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy, rocket scientists and a retired professor of surgery at Emory University.

They are the Sea Island Regional Science Fair judging committee, an all-volunteer group of experienced scientists that judges science fairs at public and private schools throughout Beaufort County. The judges also select local winners to compete in the world's largest pre-college science competition, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

This year, the 90 volunteers and 150 reserve members plan to judge more than 2,000 projects at 23 elementary, middle and high schools. They're also forming a nonprofit organization to collect donations to send county students to the Intel fair, to be held in May in Los Angeles.

Without the judges' help, it would be impossible to continue offering so many science fairs throughout the county, said Karenanne Koenig, the science coordinator for the Beaufort County School District.

"They are the people who make it happen," she said. "I don't know what we would do without them."

Not all communities are so lucky, said Michele Glidden, director of science education programs for the Society for Science and the Public, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that administers the Intel fair.

Nationally, Glidden said, participation in science fairs is on the decline, particularly in high schools. Among possible explanations for the decline are other extracurricular activities that compete for students' time and an emphasis on testing that has taken away classroom time for independent research, she said.

But Glidden said the regions that continue to have strong showings at the Intel fair have one thing in common: Involved teachers or volunteers willing to put in extra effort to keep the fairs thriving.

"It's all about local support," she said.

THE BEGINNING

The Sea Island judging committee was formed about 20 years ago when John Rosenberg's daughter wanted to enter an elementary-school science fair soon after he moved to Hilton Head Island. Rosenberg noticed schools had difficulty finding quality judges, sometimes grabbing parents from the hallways who lacked expertise.

"I looked at this and said, 'Oh, that's not very good,' " said Rosenberg, now a managing member of a company that provides energy-efficiency services.

He gathered science-minded people -- some retired and some still working -- and trained them to be judges based on standards from the Intel fair. The group's members also are encouraged to mentor students while they prepare their projects.

Scott Hamlin, a 20-year judge who now coordinates the group, said its busiest school year was 2008-09, when it judged nearly 3,800 projects at 28 fairs. During the busy season in February and March, the most devoted volunteers spend a day or two a week at the full-day fairs.

He said the committee is always looking for new judges. Candidates must have bachelor's or master's degrees and at least five years experience in a scientific or engineering field.

THE JUDGING

Chris Clayton, a retired engineer who worked with jet engines and space shuttles, has been a judge for about six years. He walked a gymnasium at Hilton Head Preparatory School on Tuesday, taking in more than 120 projects in subjects such as botany, physics, chemistry and environmental science.

Carefully designed backboards displayed charts, graphs and photos, along with text demonstrating each step of the scientific method. Some were colorful and embellished with glitter.

Clayton paused to evaluate a project by senior Reid D'Amico, who has earned a spot at the Intel fair before. His project studied electricity that can be produced from plants.

Clayton and another judge spent about 10 minutes talking with D'Amico to understand his methodology. They asked him about practical applications for his project and whether it is economically viable to capture energy from plants, before they suggested related research he might find useful.

"Wow!" said Clayton as he stepped away from D'Amico's project. "He's going to go far."

Those projects -- and their authors' enthusiasm for science -- make the fairs worthwhile, he said.

"Some just take your breath away," Clayton said.

THE LEARNING

Judges say a science fair project is important to education because it requires students to tie together a variety of skills.

The projects combine a written research paper with a visual display and oral presentation, and they require students to come up with their own ideas. Some students use math skills for a statistical analysis, and computer skills to create databases, graphs and charts.

"They defend their project not only to their teacher but to professionals who really understand their work and ask the really tough questions," said Tina Webb-Browning, a teacher and chairwoman of Hilton Head Prep's science department.

The projects allow students to learn from experience instead of a textbook, Rosenberg said. He said that's essential to understanding science. He compared it to understanding what it's like to fall in love.

"You can't describe it with words," he said. "Learning to do science is a hands-on experiment. You only learn it by doing."

Schools must emphasize science to keep the United States competitive, several judges said.

"It's really important in the society we live in that our kids get excited about science," said judge Mike Fritz. "Otherwise, everyone else in the world is going to clean our clock."

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