Judging A School Science Fair

(Guest post)
Last Wednesday I volunteered as a Washington Academy of Sciences Science Fair Judge at Paint Branch High School. I was a bit nervous, because I never judged a Science Fair before, and my only experiences judging young adults and children were for student horse shows. When I arrived, a nice student led me through the maze of hallways to the staging area, and I met Dick Davies, from the Washington Academy of Sciences. Dick, and the other core members of the judging team were very welcoming, and Dick explained their philosophy of judging.
First, I was surprised that there wasn’t a scoring, or ranking of first, second, or third place – this was totally unlike the Science Fairs I participated in when I was in school. I was really impressed with the Academy’s approach – that the judges’ primary responsibility is to encourage students in their interest and pursuit of science, complimenting them, and offering positive guidance. It made me wish I was a student now – the encouragement would have been much more positive than the disappointment I received when my project didn’t win in my school’s Science Fairs.
Representatives from Paint Branch High School worked hard to set up for us. They had sandwiches and juice waiting, and welcomed us with folders of information about their school. My favorite was the What is Special about Paint Branch High School?, handout from the principal, Jeanette Dixon, Paint Branch High school’s Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Award winner. The handout highlights student accomplishments and listed special programs and the high-level curriculum offered. Another handout gave the awards achieved by students.
Pam Leffler, the science coordinator passionately described the new school building currently under construction. She clearly displayed pride in her career – she had been with the school for more than 20 years, saying she was so happy there, she “had no reason to go elsewhere” – and told us that their new building will have 12 new science labs, and a greenhouse.
I was relieved that each new judge would paired with an experienced judge. I was teamed up with a retired NIH scientist, Dr. Peter Lemkin, whose knowledge of genetic diseases and ‘green’ energy sources was expansive. He asked me the kinds of projects I wanted to see, and chose Horticulture, AP Environmental Science, and AP Biology (the upper-level AP courses are freshman-level college courses taught in the high-school).
One student who presented her project with to Peter and me expressed her interest in blood diseases. She’s already been accepted into the University of Maryland, College Park. I told the students about USDA’s AgDiscovery Program, and http://www.aphis.usda.gov/audience/students.shtml, and Peter told her that NIH offers similar opportunities. We told them to check the Departments’ and Agencies’ websites on information on how to apply for internships. They were astonished they could be paid to perform scientific research as high school students.
Dick Davies and the others invited us to participate in another Science Fair the next day, but I declined because it is during the workday. I accepted his offer to be included in WAS e-mails for future Science Fairs, and I said I would be glad to help out next year. The Junior Academy of the Washington Academy of Sciences is always looking for scientists and technologists to volunteer as judges for school science programs.
Robin Wilcox has been with United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) since 2007. Years ago, she was a member of the USDA Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. In between, she has managed horse farms, trained horses, and taught riding. Robin continues to raise and trail ride Paso Fino horses.

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