There’s something unmistakable about science fairs. Rows of tri-fold poster boards sit atop long tables, students stand eagerly (or nervously) next to their projects, and judges meander through the maze of people and posters. In middle school, I associated the words “science fair” with outright fear. I loved science, but my shyness meant that having to talk to adults and be judged was simply miserable. Luckily, I’ve developed since the woeful days of middle school and I quite enjoy talking about science. So when the opportunity arose to be a judge for the Wyoming State Science Fair (WSSF), I didn’t hesitate to sign up.
What do you do as a judge?
In its simplest sense, judging at the WSSF is broken down into three components:
Previewing projects and taking notes while the students are not present
Interviewing students about their projects
Discussing scoring and winning projects with your judging team
All of this happens in the span of one day (or two if you preview the day before). I was on a judging team with four other people from a variety of earth sciences backgrounds. Each team had a category and a division to judge, and would go through the three aforementioned steps to choose first, second, and third place for that category and division. Our team was assigned to the Junior Division (sixth through eighth grade) Earth & Environmental Science Category.
What’s it actually like being a judge?
The WSSF was held in the University of Wyoming Union in a large ballroom filled with rows and rows of tables. Walking in, I recognized that familiar sense of unease and nervousness, but this time it was not mine. Having already previewed the projects while the students were not present, it was time for the interviewing–the part I remember being the most terrifying as the student. As I began going from project to project talking with students, I was struck by the confidence and creativity of these middle schoolers. Many students had short presentations prepared, they were all excited to answer my questions, and most didn’t hesitate to share their accomplishments (and their obstacles) with a total stranger. I was wildly impressed.
What I found most interesting was the underlying theme of all of the projects. Every student chose to study an environmental problem that affected them or their communities. One student studied the soil vibration effects of windmills near their town, another examined the pollution from cars idling at their middle school, and a group of students developed a sponge for hydrocarbon remediation for nearby oil spills. These students looked at the world around them, recognized a problem, and then studied it or tried to fix it. The results of such efforts were utterly fascinating.
What was the hardest part?
The deliberation was certainly the most challenging component of science fair judging. A team of five people means five different opinions. Some of us were graduate students, some were educators, and some were professional geologists. At the end of the day, this group of five had to decide on three top projects, and it was nearly impossible. Luckily, discussion and compromise led us to a decision, but it was no easy feat. Hearing each other’s opinions was intriguing and helped me see projects in a different light. It was an opportunity to be more open and view things from a different perspective.
In the end, judging the science fair was a rewarding and meaningful experience. If there were any middle school students who were as nervous as I used to be, I hope that I gave them the confidence to speak up about their science. Communicating science is undoubtedly the most important component of science itself, and instilling confidence in the next generation of scientists is imperative for our future.
If you’d like to learn more about the WSSF, view the list of 2018 awardees, or see pictures of the winning projects, click here.