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2020 March 15

Virtual science fair

Yesterday was the Santa Cruz County Science and Engineering Fair, which had been scheduled to take place at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville.

But on Monday March 9, 5 days before the fair, the entire thing was changed from an in-person event to a virtual event.  Students with projects were asked to upload a report, a video, a picture of their poster, and a picture of their lab notebook.  These were supposed to be uploaded by 7pm Friday night (giving the students rather little time to prepare).

I was the lead judge for the high-school projects, of which we had very few this year—only twelve projects had originally been submitted, and on Friday night only nine had submitted the additional material.  I watched the videos and read all the reports Friday night, so that I could do phone interviews with the students on Saturday. I also scheduled all the phone interviews for the five judges in 15-minute slots and sent e-mail to the judges arranging video conferences before and after the interview period.

The morning meeting was tried first with Google Hangouts, which failed—I could not hear any of the other judges, though they could hear me and each other.  The video quality was also poor.  I switched the meeting to Zoom (using the UCSC license) and that worked much better, though one of the judges never signed in and did not respond to email.  The judges spent most of their morning watching videos and reading reports, with interviewing starting at 11:30 a.m.

After interviewing had already started, two more projects were added, requiring me to change everybody’s interview schedules on our shared Google spreadsheet (which I messed up somewhat, as I was frantically typing in changes between phone calls).  We did not get a chance to see those videos or read the reports until after the interviewing was over, which really reduced how much we could get out of the phone interviews.

After the interviews, we had another Zoom meeting, with all the judges this time (though the one who missed the morning meeting was also a half-hour late for the afternoon one—not someone I would want to work with on a regular basis).  We quickly reached consensus on our top two projects (to send to ISEF), though it took longer to figure out the third and to decide which of the projects were good enough to advance to state-level competition (assuming that state actually does do something this year).  For the first time that I can remember, I had to urge judges to allow more projects to go forward—in previous years I’ve been having to try to hold the standards high enough that weak high-school projects were not blocking better middle-school projects from going (we have a quota of how many projects we can send, but it is not split between high-school and middle-school divisions).

The process was not as much fun as the in-person event, and there was no sharing with the public (which I see as an important part of science fair), but it went better than I expected given that we were using new software for the first time and switching to an online and phone process at the last moment.

One thing I liked was having the full reports and videos available the night before—I think that we should insist on that in future, even if we have in-person science fairs.  One thing I hated was having last-minute additions to the list—we should be stricter about deadlines in future (we had to be lenient this year, because of the last-minute addition to the requirements).  If administrators want to have a grace period, we can make the deadline for report and video submissions be Wednesday night, with an unadvertized grace period to Friday noon, but absolutely no submissions accepted after that.  We obviously couldn’t do that this year, as students weren’t even informed of the need for videos and reports until Monday.

Phone interviews are not as good as in-person ones, but the video recordings of the students’ spiels was better than having the students give the same spiel 5 times. Having ten-minute slots for the phone interviews was a little tight—fifteen-minute slots, as I had originally scheduled, would have been about right.

The zoom meeting for the judges worked as well as in-person meetings have done in the past, though that might have been because we had fewer judges (and fewer projects) than in previous years.  One thing I missed was running into old friends, many of whom I only see once a year at the science-fair judging.  I also missed being able to browse the posters in other divisions and categories.  There are usually a few good high-school projects, but a lot of times the top middle-school ones are more interesting, just because there are a lot more middle-schoolers participating. (There are about 13,000 high-school students in the county [], so having only 11 high-school projects is really rather embarrassing.)

Overall, I’d say that from my perspective this science fair was a successful one, despite the last-minute changes forced by the COVID-19 precautions.  I’d be curious to know how well the format worked for the middle schoolers.

2013 August 30

WEST theater classes fill up fast

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:08
Tags: , , , ,

Today was the first day of registration for WEST Performing Arts classes, and by 9:00 a.m. one of the teen classes was already full:

WEST Ensemble Players: Inspecting Carol & Much Ado About Nothing
Day/Time: Thursdays, 6:30pm – 8:45pm
Dates: September 12 – May 15 (30 weeks; see website for details)
Location: West End Studio Theatre
THIS IS A FULL SEASON (Sept. – May) enrollment
8 Monthly payments of $120 (see website for payment schedule)

Sorry, this class is full

How, you may wonder, did that happen? Well, WEST classes usually fill up quickly, but this was a special case. Earlier in the week, there had been an e-mail sent out to families of teens who had been in the WEST Ensemble Players last year:

The fall schedule has posted online at WEST. Please note that the official start of registration is Friday, August 30th. Again this year, WEST Ensemble Players will be a small class with an expected maximum of 12 students for the fall and possibly 15 students for the spring. The students expressed a desire to stay together as a group last spring. I know lives and interests and plans change, but I would like to extend a priority registration to the students from last year’s WEST Ensemble Players classes before this class opens to the public. Please note the classes were created keeping in mind a full season curriculum. This year, we are asking for a full September–May commitment. If you don’t feel you can commit to this, we can add you to the class for one semester only if there is space available.

If you are planning on joining the WEST Ensemble Players class, please email me directly so I can secure your place in the class.

We jumped on the opportunity, and it looks like everyone else from last year did also.  There is a slightly different feel for a group that works together often—the difference between a pick-up game and a team.  I’m expecting great things of the WEST Ensemble Players this year!

This is my son’s senior year of high school, so his last year with WEST.  Because he has finished all high school graduation requirements except a year of English, half a year of econ, and half a year of civics, he is taking this year to concentrate on his fun subjects:

  • 3 theater classes: WEST Ensemble Players (which filled up before registration opened to the public), Dinosaur Prom Improv (a closed troupe, with the same players as last year) and Page to Stage (a slightly new endeavor for WEST in adapting literature to the stage—with students doing the scriptwriting and directing, as well as the acting). WEST has opened up a couple more intermediate improv classes, probably in the hopes of replacing graduating members of Dinosaur Prom next year and possibly of forming a competing troupe, but since he is already in Dinosaur Prom, he doesn’t need another weekly improv outlet.
    Update—2013 Sept 31: Page to Stage filled up on the first day without any pre-registration, so the teen classes at WEST are indeed in high demand.
  • Two computer engineering projects: extending the Arduino Data Logger he wrote last year (many new features) and the Bluetooth light gloves project.
  • Group Theory as an online class from Art of Problem Solving

And some not so fun ones:

  • AP Chemistry through ChemAdvantage (I won’t be teaching him myself).  This one will not be painful, but is not a big interest.
  • Econ at home (Fall semester)  He may be able to work some of the financial planning for the light-gloves project into this course, as he will be doing a fairly detailed business plan and cost estimation for manufacturing the gloves.  Again, not too painful, but he probably wouldn’t bother if it weren’t a high school graduation requirement in California.
  • Civics at home (Spring semester) Possibly painful, certainly boring, but a high school graduation requirement.
  • English: writing in the fall (a combination of the Page to Stage class, college application essays, and tech writing), dramatic literature in the Spring (with the trip to Oregon Shakespeare Festival).  The writing parts will probably be painful, but we’ll try not to have any make-work writing, but only writing that clearly needs to be done and has a genuine audience.

He’s also looking at some possible community service: being a TA for the Python class gain this year, possibly starting an Arduino/microcontroller club (his consultant teacher wants to see more socialization among the homeschooled computer geeks), and doing a workshop in a few weeks with me to encourage home-schooled middle schoolers and high schoolers to enter the county science fair.  It isn’t obvious whether he’ll enter science fair this year himself—he’d like to have a 7th year at state, just to have done it every year possible, but he doesn’t have any big projects right now other than the data logger (which he took to state last year) and the light gloves (which are an ambitious engineering project, but not the sort of “save-the-world” project that the state judges like—and they generally prefer science to engineering).

We met with our consultant teacher yesterday, and she approved this plan.

2013 March 15

Judging at state again this year

Filed under: Science fair — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:17
Tags: , ,

I’ve volunteered to judge at the California State Science Fair again this year, since I need to travel down to Los Angeles anyway to accompany my son, who will once again be going to state (this makes his 6th year in a row).  I didn’t find out from the county judges (even though I was a judge in the elementary and middle-school divisions at county), nor from the awards ceremony, which isn’t until next Monday, but from the public posting of those eligible to register for the state science fair on the California State Science Fair site.  Given that the deadline for Santa Cruz students to register for the state science fair is 2013 March 21, only 3 days after the 2013 March 18 awards ceremony, and that students need to edit their abstracts from the county’s overly rigid format to the state format, I believe that the students going on to state should be informed as soon as possible, not waiting over a week for the awards ceremony.

Santa Cruz County once again got allocated 40 projects at state, based mainly on historical levels of awards.  As I understand the allocation formula, it is now based on the average number of awards at state for the preceding 5 years, with a minimum of 6 for each affiliated fair, even if they have never produced an award-winning project.  The large number of projects allocated for Santa Cruz County (despite our relatively small population) is a testimony to the average quality of the ones we send to state.

I copied the list of names on the state web site, and sorted them into projects at the county level, and I count 44 projects, not 40, so I suspect that this list includes 4 alternates—I don’t know which four. It’s possible that my son is just an alternate (which would be a shame, because I made non-refundable motel reservations earlier today).

Derecho, Devin                Junior    Behavioral and Social Sciences
Hayes, Anika                    Junior    Behavioral and Social Sciences
Marsh, Sam                       Junior    Botany
Gwiazda, Gina                   Junior    Botany
Parsa, Sophie and Rorty, Ruby    Junior    Botany
Clarkson, Maya                   Junior    Chemistry
Failor, Phoebe                    Junior    Chemistry
Hume, Bristol and Sierra, Ava    Junior    Chemistry
Chandiramani, Rishi                Junior    Cognitive Science
Scott-Curtis, Liam              Junior    Cognitive Science
Kvaternik, Jaime                Junior    Earth Science
Mitchell, Jacob                   Junior    Earth Science
Freedman, Max                  Junior    Energy and Power
Ortiz, Chloe                         Junior    Energy and Power
Popilsky, Tovah                  Junior    Energy and Power
Bjorklund, Eli and Hite, Parker    Junior    Environmental Engineering
Kent, Madelyn                    Junior    Environmental Engineering
Donohoe, Jack                    Junior    Environmental Science
Freedman, Emma               Junior    Environmental Science
Taylor, Gemma                    Junior    Environmental Science
Hanlon, Jeremy                   Junior    Math and Software
Patz, Sara                              Junior    Math and Software
Bernstein, Talia                   Junior    Medicine and Health
Tschirky, Chloe                    Junior    Medicine and Health
Silverglate, Steven               Junior    Physics and Astronomy
von Oepen, Marc                 Junior    Physics and Astronomy
Schaefer-Whittall, Emma            Junior    Zoology
Spence, Ferryn                    Junior    Zoology
Webb, Audrey                     Junior    Zoology

Glum, Anthony and Gonzalez, Rene and Ortiz, Daniel    Senior    Botany
Maxwell, Anna and Weigel, Adela    Senior    Botany
Hernandez, Emily                Senior    Botany
Gallagher, Natalie and Lydon, Connor    Senior    Earth Science
Garcia, Cesar                    Senior    Environmental Science
Prambs, Johann              Senior    Environmental Science
Dong, Kevin                     Senior    Math and Software
Karplus, Abraham          Senior    Math and Software
Loehde-Woolard, Hailey            Senior    Chemistry
Miller, Adrian and Sanchez, Michaela    Senior    Microbiology
Torres, Isabel                   Senior    Microbiology
Yerena, Maria                  Senior    Microbiology
Pogson, Angela                Senior    Zoology
Pouls, Jazz                        Senior    Zoology
Manier, Saige                   Senior    Zoology

2013 March 10

Santa Cruz County Science Fair 2013

I spent Friday evening and all day Saturday judging at the Santa Cruz County Science Fair, which is always fun, but a little tiring.  This year I was the lead judge for the “Energy and Power” category, which had 14 projects in grades 4–5 and 14 in grades 6–8.  There were no high school projects in my category, and they decided to have interviews but not judging for K–3, so I ended up only talking briefly with the K–3 students and did not give them written feedback.  I interviewed 26 or 27 of the students in my category, and provided written feedback for each of them.  That written feedback is the most important part of the fair, and the judges in my category were all very diligent about providing detailed feedback, so most of the kids got 4 or 5 feedback forms.  In some other categories, a lot of the judges left without providing feedback, and a few kids ended up with no feedback forms. (I heard about it from some of the parents, because the administrator had left before the public viewing, and I was clearly identifiable as a judge—I wear a lab coat for judging science fair.)

The “energy and power” category is where all the lemon batteries end up, which makes it a rather sad category for judges.  Every category has a few projects that appear (usually very badly done) year after year. The lemon batteries are almost always terrible projects, with the students following rote directions from the web (in at least two cases this year, incorrectly) and having no understanding what they are doing.  I think that Science Buddies has a lot to answer for! The students seem to think that the power is coming from the fruit (rather than from the dissimilar metals) and that voltage is the same thing as power.

We also got the windmills, solar cells, wave generators, and thermoelectric devices. Those were generally a little bit better done—we actually had a pretty good solar cell project and a pretty good Peltier-device project. Because our fair does not have an engineering category (other than “environmental engineering”), we ended up with a number of the engineering projects as well (hovercrafts, ducted propellers, and the like).

There is a big need to train elementary school teachers (and to a lesser extent middle-school teachers) in science and engineering methods.  And I don’t mean the nonsense they teach about the “scientific method”, which bears almost no resemblance to any process of scientific or engineering work I’ve ever seen.  I mean that they need to know how to measure voltage, current, and resistance, and to be able to show kids how to compute power (it is not the same thing as voltage, nor is it the product of open-circuit voltage and short-circuit current).  Teachers should be able to show students how to build a simple calorimeter and measure energy from chemical reactions (like burning fuel). A lot of the students I interviewed were quite bright, but no one had ever taught them the basics they needed to be able to do their projects.  Nor have they been taught how to use the tools they have. I don’t want to see another student wrapping the loop for measuring AC current around a wire and claiming that they are measuring resistance, nor claims that lemon batteries produced 9 Amps at 1v.

Things I learned when I was 8–10 years old should be within reach of their teachers. I think that a few hours of professional development that involved them actually doing some measurements and learning the basics of some of the science and engineering projects would improve the quality of their students projects a lot. Every elementary school teacher should know how to use a hand saw, a drill, wire strippers, and a soldering iron, and they should be teaching the kids how to use them also.  (Yes, I can see the safety problems if you try to do it in a large class—but the safety problems in PE classes are far larger, but we haven’t thrown out all sports in schools because of it.)

Even just telling the teachers some basic ideas might help.  Some of the things I see repeatedly:

  • Know what you are measuring (voltage is not power).
  • Measure the right thing to answer the underlying question.
  • Measure inputs as well as outputs (counting colonies tells you how many culturable bacteria or fungi were in your initial sample, which is useless if you don’t know how big the sample was).
  • Don’t culture unknown micro-organisms (except in a lab with proper protection and sterilization equipment).
  • Read (and cite) some material from the web. High school students should be going well beyond Wikipedia in their literature searches, but even a short Wikipedia seach would be a big step up for most of the middle school and elementary school students.  If Wikipedia is too difficult for an elementary school student (as it may well be), see if there is anything useful on Simple English Wikipedia.
  • Good science fair projects take time, often with many false starts. There are way too many 1-week projects at the county science fair.
  • Mentorship is good, but doing the work for the kid is not—especially not the interpretation of the results. This point is aimed more at the over-involved parents than the teachers—but judges have to be very careful, as there are some highly motivated kids doing things that look like adult work, but really are just the student.  (I remember an incident about a decade ago, of a kid in another category who was severely down graded by the judges in who thought they were judging a parental project, but I talked with the kid for 15 minutes later on and I was convinced that the work really was his alone.  I was angry at the judges for not being more careful in their judgements, but there was nothing I could do about it.)

It’s great to see the enthusiasm and talent of the K–3 group (which has been growing so rapidly that the hall that is rented for the Science Fair is no longer big enough), but that enthusiasm and talent seems to dissipate rapidly around middle school—there are still a lot good middle-school projects, but there are also a number of kids just going through the motions and only a few are continuing to do science fair once they are not required to.  I see more evidence of parental over-involvement at middle school than at elementary school (though that may be due to the selection processes at the different feeder schools, rather than inherent in the age groups).  I didn’t see any evidence of over-involvement in my category this year—if anything, I saw the opposite, with students not getting critical guidance so that they could do a really meaningful project.

One very sad part of the county science fair is how few high school students participate.  There are no school-level fairs in our county at the high school level, and little or no encouragement of individual projects.  This year I think we had 23 projects from high school students, out of a population of about 7500 high school students—about 0.3%.    According to the statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the various STEM categories add up to about 6% of the workforce (not counting healthcare, which would double the number, and not counting several related occupations, like high-school science teachers, scientific sales, science and engineering managers, …).  So even with very conservative counting, we’re short by a factor of 20 in this county.  I’d be satisfied if even 1–2% of the high school students were entering science fair, but we’re nowhere close to that number, and the participation at the high-school level is shrinking, not growing, each year.

The problem is not strictly a local one—most places see a drop in participation from middle school to high school, but I don’t think many are as extreme as here.  There are some places in the US where high school science fair is big—what have they done differently?

Lots of organizations have seen the problem of high school students losing interest in science fair, and they have put up cash prizes and other incentives for high school students, but (in this county anyway), no one is taking the bait.  We need to find a way to get high-school students excited about doing science or engineering projects, and I don’t know what would stimulate that excitement.

Many (most?) of the good projects in middle school and high school came from home-schooled kids or kids getting a lot of after-school education from mentors or parents.  This may be related to the point that good science fair projects take time and require passion on the part of the students, and the local schools (public, private, and charter) don’t provide a good environment for projects that take time nor for students to show passion—way too much busywork and time wasted preparing for standardized tests.

2012 March 6

How to be a Good Science Fair Judge

Filed under: Science fair — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:48
Tags: , , , , ,

It is science fair judging time at the County level, so I collected a few of the resources available for judges:

I was also going to post Resources from a science teacher at on the list above, but while there are two rubrics given, they are just point-score lists, with no indication how to do the judging.  I have point-score lists from several different school fairs, and I’ve always found them pretty useless—I much prefer scoring sheets that allow a lot of room for notes about strong and weak aspects of the project, and that don’t bother with point scores.  Other judges have different reactions—some love adding up numbers. The site does have an exercise for students in writing hypothesis statements that may be useful for some teachers.

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