I spent this morning working as a volunteer for the Display Approval Committee for the California State Science Fair. I did not have to disapprove any posters, though I did ask one student to remove the samples of decaying leaves and compost from his display.
In the afternoon, I looked at some of the high-school posters with my son. One thing that CSSF did new this year was to have students stand with their posters 3:00–4:30 p.m. for public viewing. This was great, as it gave the public (including me) a chance to hear some of the spiels. I mainly listened to kids in the high-school Mathematics and Software category (the category my son is also in). There were some pretty impressive posters and presentations—the category has become a tough one (like biochem has been for a few years).
I did notice that some projects or topics appeared in different categories. For example, microbial fuel cells could have ended up in microbiology, chemistry, environmental science, or electricity and electromagnetism. Bioinformatics projects ended up in either math and software or any of several biology categories. I think that it would be a good idea for the judges to get together and make some more detailed categorization examples, so that all the microbial fuel cells end up in the same category, for example.
After the public viewing, they had the keynote speech. For the second year in a row they got an incompetent public speaker, chosen apparently for her connection with the fund-raising arm of the science fair. Last year they had Gary K. Michelson, who talked like an actor playing the part of a scientist, refusing to talk at all about science. This year’s speaker, Cheryl Mae Craft, was like a parody of an academic speaker (including the contentless pie chart slides and slides automatically advancing past the point she wanted them to and her unable either to roll them back or recover from the mishap. This being Los Angeles, one almost suspects that they were hiring out-of-work actors to play the parts of the keynote speakers.
Both years the speakers studiously avoiding talking about science at all (to an audience consisting primarily of students who were passionate about science). I believe that Dr. Craft had one slide about her science, then told students to look her up on the web. If Dr. Craft had a beard, she could have been Prof. Smith:
I do remember that a few years ago they had some good keynote speakers, so it isn’t as if CSSF was incapable of finding them. I suspect that some idiot on the CSSF board selected fund-raising luminaries (without paying attention to whether they could give a good speech), and then hamstrung them by insisting that they not talk about science.
I believe that the audience would have been much better served if scientists talked about their work and not about vague platitudes. I’d rather listen to a meaty talk which I only understand a quarter of, than a contentless one like the last two keynotes. If you want to inspire kids to go into science, don’t put examples of “successful” people who sound as boring as paper pushers and who can’t or won’t talk about science (perhaps they are now purely administrators and don’t do science any more?). It seemed like the keynote speakers were chosen for political payback, not for the benefit of the audience.
It would be better to get an unknown scientist doing exciting work and have them talk about that work as if it were the most exciting thing in the world. I’m sure that there are hundreds of scientists in LA who could have given a better keynote, and 1000s in California. Hell, having the winners from the previous year’s science fair talk about their projects would have been much more interesting and inspiring. That would be a keynote that would inspire kids!