Lessons Learned at the Regional Science Fair

A young scientist presents in the undergraduate poster session of the American Chemical Society spring meeting, 2007.  Image credit: Ellen Valkevich.
A young scientist presents in the undergraduate poster session of the American Chemical Society spring meeting, 2007. Image credit: Ellen Valkevich.

This spring I had the privilege of being a judge at my local science fair. As a high school student, I had participated in the science fair and it was a huge part of my science learning experience. Now that I am qualified to be a judge, it is time for me to give back while avoiding the trap of turning into the dreaded Reviewer #2.*

I scored quite a few different projects, primarily in Earth & Environmental Science. I was pleased to see the large number of students involved in the discipline, and the interest they showed in environmental monitoring and sustainability. However, I was surprised to see the number of projects which focused on pH, but without understanding of pH of rainwater or the influence of carbonates.

Limited or non-existent access to instrumentation was clearly a limiting factor in many of the projects. That observation leads to a question: what can be done to address the disparity in instrument access and to improve the quality of data being used in science fair projects? I believe the long-term answer to that question is to fund our schools and support the teachers and staff who work in them.

Another solution would be to have students use and analyze publicly available data. In many cases, this cut out some of the hands-on portion of making measurements, which detracts from the overall learning goals. Using publicly-available data also means that teachers would need to be more aware of good data resources and ideas for how to go about analyzing that data—each significantly increasing the work load and responsibilities of the teachers. For research projects, it is important to have a low student:teacher ratio, so that the students can have the support they need to succeed in their project. However, publicly available data allow students to do cutting-edge research with the same tools and data used by professional scientists.

Here are a few examples of low-budget, high-quality data projects that could be interesting:

  • Weather forecast accuracy. Make a daily record of the National Weather Service forecast (for each day forecast) for your area, as well as the almanac data from the closest instrumented NWS station (often an airport). How does forecast accuracy change over time? How accurate is a forecast 72 hours out?
  • Earth-Observing Satellite data. With a constellation of Earth-observing satellites including Aqua, Terra, Landsat (7 and 8), and formerly EO-1, there are mountains of data waiting to be analyzed. Students can look at crop health locally, at glacial changes, deforestation, volcanic activity, wildfires, and a host of other things. Data are freely available, GIS software is freely available, and the data analysis skills are quite relevant in today’s job market.
  • Buoy data. As I’ve mentioned here before, there are several fleets of marine buoys which take various oceanographic measurements, such as conductivity-temperature-depth profiles and current measurements. Oceanography isn’t my thing, but I’m sure there are enough papers that use these data that some project ideas could be found. These projects are likely to use GIS.

* Reviewer #2 is known for being overly critical, wanting a paper that isn’t particularly close to the paper that was submitted, having unreasonable or unattainable expectations, and generally being a jerk.