This August, will be the tenth time I have been a judge at the Canterbury-Westland Science and Technology Fair. It is a great opportunity to see the range of projects that students are doing in school and to give them positive feedback about their projects, and science in general.
Sometime it can be a challenge being a judge over many years. When you see the 50th project on how fizzy drinks rot teeth, it can seem all a bit repetitive. However, for the child waving stained teeth at you, this is possibly their first experience of science. It is up to you to make sure it is a positive one. You don’t have to award them a prize, but I do believe you have to give them some encouragement (no matter how bad or unoriginal you think the project is).
In the past I have seen judges who get too caught up in the rules around awarding prizes, who miss this opportunity – reducing a child to tears because they haven’t prepared their lab book properly is not going to create the sort of lasting impression about science that we want for these children.
When I talk to students about their projects I always start with something positive – have they presented it well, chosen a novel topic, repeated the analyses several times? There is always something positive to focus on. Then I often ask why they did things a certain way, and if I necessary I will ask them what they think they could have done better, maybe adding a few things for them to consider when they enter another project next year.
Although I have a certain category to judge (health related projects), if I see something that stands out, even if it isn’t in this category I will tell the student that, while it doesn’t fall into my category for judging, that I think theirs is an interesting project.
You don’t need to award a prize to make a positive difference.
It is also a danger to assume that the best projects imply future scientific prowess. My own attempts at science fair projects at intermediate school were hideous, when I look back on them, mainly because my teachers at the time were overworked and had limited scientific knowledge to assist with projects.
So if you want a simple, effective way to start promoting science, become a science judge. And when you are judging, don’t focus on just the best projects (which may be the best due to parental input) – encourage as many students as you can by telling them what you like about their project. They could be our future scientists.