I have been meaning to give a summary of my experience as a judge at The Ohio Academy of Science for the State Science Day (May 7, 2011) - for, I think, the fourth time.

The best part of this event every year is the impressiveness of the students who work hard - really hard in most cases - to do something they love or at least like a lot. Good research is hard to do and, when done properly, always has some very no fun parts. These projects had all passed through other competitions to get to the State level where over 100 different scholarships and awards are offered valued at more than $2.7 million! Kids are kids - but these kids focused some of their lives on interesting questions and valuable efforts. They were nervous and prepared!

My Partner Judge and I (she is on the staff at Ohio Wesleyan University and was very entertaining and fun to work with!) judged three different projects. Each had strong aspects and room for improvement (and a good beat - I felt like I could dance to it). 

The first young man (an 8th grader) had a strong, comfortable speaking voice and seemed very confident in his understanding of his project. He went right into his explanation of his research. He was interested in fish farming. Perch. He investigated a theory that if you raise the dissolved oxygen in the environment, the fish will grow faster. Interesting thought. 

His hypothesis was not supported by his data. He didn’t use perch – his mother bought him goldfish instead (they breathe oxygen from the surface air, so weren’t the best model). His methodology wasn’t controlled well enough to really notice any effects, but he was on the right track. He suffered from the common problem of not enough background research. He would have done the work much differently had he read from a few other similar projects.

This student lives in the middle of southeastern Ohio nowhere. We asked him the closest city and he named five before I had to ask how far he lived from Cincinnati – an hour and a half east! So… small school, smaller town few resources and guidance. He seemed to have more resources than guidance, though as there is a fish farm a few miles from where he lives. It isn’t clear why no one insisted he go meet with them or at least call – and he couldn’t say. He had gotten that far though, and has an interesting line of questions and a decent start.

The second boy, another 8th grader, studied “Bergman’s Rule,” that the general body size of members of a species (or sub-species in this case) increases from the southern to northern parts of its range. (I kept his abstract or I’d never remember the name of the rule! He didn’t have his name on his abstract… kids!) 

This was very interesting research. He measured a leg bone in many, many preserved Song Sparrow specimens from university collections. He worked with researchers, apparently as part of a larger project at Ohio Wesleyan and went to the University of Michigan to measure birds. He has been involved with these researchers for some years and knows the lay of the land. 

His project had an apparent major flaw he couldn’t quite account for. Apparently, his mentors counseled him to ‘throw out’ some outlier data. We assumed there was a good reason for this that he didn’t get from his advisors, but I sort of read him the riot act (nicely) about ‘cheating’ with data. When your variable of interest is body size, you don’t arbitrarily throw away small measurements that don’t fit your expectations (duh!) This kid is very likely to pursue some research profession in natural history. He was rubbing elbows and enjoying the culture. It’s a good time to learn the ethical dangers of the field while the lessons are cheap!

Incidentally this is one reason they require a lab notebook for all projects. This requirement seems more and more challenging in these days of ipods and pads and smartphones… (alas)… but he had indicated the outliers in some of his spreadsheets, and while I don’t remember how we ‘figured it out’ (my partner did), his notes weren’t very well organized, and it made it hard for him to explain some of the decisions ‘he’ had made along the way. Good for the State Science Day for this requirement. A lab notebook is a stated component of the judge’s scoring.

The last project was from a 9th grade boy (there were plenty of girls in the competition – luck of the draw) who became interested in his project while thinking about the Gulf Oil Spill. He ended up considering how the presence of (very small amounts) of motor oil will affect reproductive rates of Daphnia, small (cute) aquatic Crustaceans. His project pretty much fit in the middle of the three. It was a pretty good design and he seemed to have a decent understanding of his research. He suffered mostly from small sample sizes and not enough replications. Of course, this is a harsh critique for a middle school science project, but, hey, it’s the State Championship – think how hard the football players work!

One of my favorite parts of the State Science Day is after the judging and before they are allowed to break down their projects. I enjoy walking around and looking at the incredible diversity of questions and interest. Some are obviously right out of the books you buy in the science section at your local bookstore or the volumes still in the school library from when I went to high school! But there are some very interesting, good projects, too.

Last year I spoke with a junior from Upper Arlington High School who was working with cancer researchers at The Ohio State University. He used proteins from fireflies (available readily as prepped kits for such purposes) as indicators for the growth of particular cancer cells – or something like that. I lost track of much of his explanation after a few moments of introduction – it was fascinating, important and sophisticated work!

This year, I walked up to a little kid watching over her sister’s poster, post-judging. She looked like a 2nd grader! It turns out, it was her project. This was the first year they included 5th graders in the pool of young scientists, and she was a tiny 5th grader! She investigated taste discrimination between boys and girls. It was a cute, 5th grade project with a decent question. It wasn’t clear how ‘dedicated’ she was to it, but she definitely got a good, early start on her career in science, and she learned from it! 

I am still on the fence about having kids as young as 5th grade in such a statewide competition. I think about the sports model for students and don’t understand why this should diverge much from that. The Ohio High School Football Championship(s) are a big deal – science should do that!

If you are interested in judging this competition next year, you can keep track on their website: http://www.ohiosci.org/ssd.htm (that’s the page for the 2011 State Science Day – their home page will have updated info as the next one approaches.

If you have even a passing interest in kids, education, science, nature, medicine, physics… whatever, I highly recommend this as a fulfilling interesting experience. If you are anything like me, it will leave you feeling inspired and excited to have spent time with these engaging kids doing interesting things with their time!