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Saturday, March 16, 2013

NH Science Expo can’t become a real statewide science fair without more judges

CONCORD – A science fair doesn’t work without students, obviously, but it also doesn’t work without judges.

When you’re trying to create a statewide science fair that meets national standards, that second issue could be a problem. ...

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CONCORD – A science fair doesn’t work without students, obviously, but it also doesn’t work without judges.

When you’re trying to create a statewide science fair that meets national standards, that second issue could be a problem.

“We need five judges per display. Last year, we had three; this year, we have four,” said Richard Feren, a retired physics and math teacher from Milford and a director for the New Hampshire Science and Engineering Exposition, which was held Thursday at New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord.

The expo, in its 10th year, would like to be recognized by the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair so winners could get more prizes and go on
to follow-up competitions. This would make it a true statewide science fair, which doesn’t exist in New Hampshire.

Judges aren’t paid for their efforts, unless you count a free box lunch that tried to compensate in portability for what it lacked in flavor, with middling success.

So what led more than 45 engineers, teachers, parents – and one Telegraph reporter – to spend most of Thursday in a college gymnasium, pondering a study of the relationship between music and academics, or an attempt to create crystals in a microwave, or an analysis of sunscreen’s ability to protect bacteria from ultraviolet light?

“It’s interesting,” said Marie Francesca, of Amherst, a systems engineer with Mitre Corp. in Bedford, Mass. A number of judges Thursday worked for Mitre, having been recruited by colleague Deborah Schuh, who is a director of the expo.

Francesca doesn’t have kids in this or any other science fair, or any other personal link, and a shortage of engineering projects meant she was way out of her field of expertise. But she said that didn’t bother her because she likes the idea of helping teens develop a scientific view of the world.

Which doesn’t mean judging was easy.

“The hard part is figuring out what to expect at this level,” she said.

Judges spent two hours visiting at least four, and sometimes six, projects, plus a couple of challenge events about building devices to help eggs survive a fall or to climb a hill.

Each carried double-
sided sheets with two dozen categories to be judges, producing a morning full of quick decisions about, for example, whether a project deserves 5 points for “use of unique methods, designs, or materials,” 4 points for “evidence of project development and other supporting documents with citations” in the laboratory notebook, 10 points for having an “experimental plan with controls, developed logically and thoroughly,” and so on.

This reporter found it nerve-wracking to sit in judgment on weeks of hard work by teens, particularly since they were all interesting to talk to, which means I wanted to give good scores because I liked them. It was especially hard because I knew nothing about their research topics.

Schuh worked hard to reassure people like me.

“You don’t need to be an expert in the field,” she said during an introductory session for the judges, more than half of whom had never judged this competition before. “This is more about the scientific method than the findings.”

I judged four student projects, none from Greater Nashua – which was a little tricky, since almost one-fifth of the entrees were from students at Nashua High School North or South.

Three of the projects I judged were from Franklin High School, a small school north of Concord. That sounds surprising, but reflects a problem with the fair: Only nine high schools participated, almost always because one or two science teachers at the school encouraged it or made it part of the curriculum.

Becoming part of the prestigious Intel competition would do a lot to expand that number.

As well as judges, money is necessary to join Intel. As part of certification, Intel requires that state science fairs have several thousand dollars in hand for any student they send to the national competition. Since the total operating budget of the expo is only a few thousand dollars – some of it spent on those box lunches – deep-pocket sponsors are needed, Feren said.

Dyn, a Manchester-based Internet firm, was a major sponsor this year as part of its efforts to develop the region’s technology “ecosystem.”

“Knowledge workers are
the future,” said David Lemaire, vice president of technology for Dyn and the event’s keynote speaker. “The things they’re doing here, right now – logical thinking – that’s valuable, no matter what they do.”

For more information on being part of the exposition, visit www.nhsee.org.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks’ blog on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).