How to make the most of a science fair – be a judge

On Saturday 9 September, I was invited along with a bunch of my student peers to be a judge on the Canterbury Westlands Schools’ Science and Technology Fair 2017 at Ara Institute. Over 200 students enthusiastically presented their work on a variety of topics which, honestly, blew my mind!

Not having previous experience in judging a school science exhibition did not deter me. In fact, the very astute Tamsin Laird, outreach coordinator for the College of Science, made me talk about my background in journalism in a judges meeting to highlight my interest in and the relevance of science communication in today’s world. Because what better event than a science fair to think about changing the world?

Here’s why I thoroughly enjoyed judging the science fair:

  1. It took me back to a time (erm, decades ago) when I was a school student and exhibiting science projects to my peers and my teachers. Even if it wasn’t on such a large scale as the one at Ara, the butterflies in the stomach were unmistakable, as was the friendly competition among students! For the first time as an adult, I saw parents being apprehensive (but supportive) about the results of the competition!
  2. I went in without any preset expectations, but I had a set of guidelines and a very able school physics and chemistry teacher for a co-judge (judges were paired to check exhibits). The thoroughness of some students amazed me, but the cherry on the cake was understanding what motivated them to choose their topics.
  3. Many of the students took everyday problems they faced or witnessed around them to construct a hypothesis which they went on to prove or disprove. I wouldn’t be surprised if (hypothesis idea for next year!) a chunk of mankind’s discoveries were made similarly: by just observing or thinking about something that one witnessed. Imagine this: at one point, Lord Rayleigh must have just looked at the sky and wondered why it was blue. And then actually managed to find why! Our young padawans are on the right track.
  4. Young students are keenly observing the world around us. They left no stone unturned when it came to choosing a topic: right from things we take for granted (does a cat have a paw preference like humans are right and left handed?) to unmasking the veracity of an advertisement (do garlic supplements boost your health?) to the surprising finding (to me) that duck poo actually contains a host of e coli!

The scientific method may be methodical and some may say, almost contained, in its frame of hypothesis/observation — measurement — experiment — testing — modification and more experiments and testing in the over 400 years that it has existed for. However, for the lack of “better” methods, science continues to be the most effective tool we have developed and used to propel our species in understanding ourselves and our environment the best we can.

Giving young students an encouraging push towards science can mean a different and maybe positive history for our future generations. Go on then, introduce someone young to the marvellous world of science!

Written by Sneha Johari