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science fair judges
Members of the NSS of North Texas chapter judging entries at the 2014 Dallas Regional Science & Engineering Fair. (credit: NSS-NT)

Supporting space at science fairs


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It’s Science Fair season in the US, and across the country middle and high school students are polishing their projects for the upcoming judging events. NSS of North Texas (NSS-NT) has looked at many different projects in our community to spread the message of space exploration and development over the years, and our Science Fair Scholarship is one of our favorites. We don’t have any NASA facilities anywhere within hundreds of kilometers, so our efforts have always been an uphill struggle. This challenge has helped the chapter to focus on the most relevant ways that we can engage our community and build support for space efforts, and key among those is educating and informing people about the value and merit of space activities.

Over the seven years the chapter has been running this project, it has awarded nearly $2,500 in cash scholarships to local students.

Several years ago, past chapter president Ken Murphy indicated that he wanted to see more space-related science fair projects. He has served for many years as a (now Senior) Physics & Astronomy judge at the Dallas Regional Science & Engineering Fair (DRSEF), and wasn’t seeing many space-themed projects, but plenty of golf ball and musical instrument projects. To help encourage students to produce space-related projects for DRSEF, Ken suggested the chapter offer a special award at the fair to the projects best addressing the National Space Society’s objectives of human exploration and development of space. The chapter swiftly agreed.

Normally, judging at the science fair is within a particular field, like Physics & Astronomy, and judges apply International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) standards to determine winners. The procedure is remarkably efficient in identifying the cream of the science fair projects, something the author has seen in action year after year. When someone with an international finance (and space science) background consistently identifies the same three or four projects as a university physics professor, the procedure clearly works. When a team of a generous grader, a moderate grader, and a tough grader all come up with the same three or four projects, the process clearly works. It is truly amazing to see in action.

The Dallas Regional Science and Engineering Fair is huge, with more than 1,000 projects each year. Since physics and astronomy serves as a kind of catch-all group, there could be 40 or more projects in the high school group. There are usually two or three teams of judges in groups of three, judging nine to thirteen projects per team. Given three hours to accomplish this task, interviews have to be quick, usually in the area of ten minutes per student/project. Where there are multiple groups in a category, after the initial round of judging the team captains then have to advocate for their projects as the best against the projects of the other team captains. From this the top three in the category are selected.

Because of my background as an analyst, I’ve developed a particular procedure over the years where I conduct the initial round of interviews, then go back and review each project. Then we have to go away from the students to fill out the forms. After assigning the point values I then go back and add up each projects totals, then go back and sort them highest to lowest, and finally compare my results with the other judges. As noted, the grading criteria are remarkably efficient at raising the cream to the top.

Special Award judges, in contrast, are able to apply their own criteria to encourage particular areas of study. Were NSS-NT to offer only award certificates, the impact might be muted. However, since their first year NSS-NT has also offered one or more cash scholarships to award winners.

Initially there was concern that this would drain the chapter’s treasury and after a few years fall by the wayside for want of resources. The chapter has carefully stewarded their share of the 2007 International Space Development Conference (ISDC) proceeds under Ken’s leadership, and still has a decent treasury for undertaking opportunistic projects. So rather than drain the treasury, the chapter solicits space items and hold raffles at outreach events throughout the year to raise the award monies from the very communities served by DRSEF. Over the seven years the chapter has been running this project, it has awarded nearly $2,500 in cash scholarships to local students! To make sure that every dollar raised in this manner goes to the students, the chapter directly covers the administrative costs of the awards luncheon at SMU.

This project achieves a number of objectives for the chapter. Not only are we encouraging and incentivizing future scientists and engineers to consider space projects, but we’re also bringing the NSS name to a new generation. Our chapter name is printed in the awards luncheon program, and is read aloud during the ceremony process. And the judges really enjoy interacting with the students. Here are some reflections from the chapter judges.

Ken Ruffin (Chapter President):

“Since the general public has so little knowledge of space exploration and development topics, my expectations were quite muted before I judged my first DRSEF. Of the hundreds of science fair projects each year, perhaps 99% are not at all space-inspired. However, those rare jewels, those projects directly or indirectly inspired by space, have consistently made it worthwhile to wake up early on a Saturday morning to judge. The winners of the NSS of North Texas scholarships have been quite knowledgeable and deeply passionate about space. NSS-NT appreciates, acknowledges, and rewards those students who may well be future NSS, NASA, and commercial spaceflight leaders, as well as future ISDC speakers. I'm proud to say that I'm directly helping to inspire the next generation of potential space leaders who just might transform my space dreams into reality!”

Carol Johnson (Chapter Officer Emeritus):

”After having acted as a special awards judge for several years, I continue to be impressed with the entire DRSEF process. The level of thought and innovation from the students is sometimes mind-boggling. I especially like being a special award judge, because we can make awards to encourage younger students and let them know that there are potential monetary rewards for space-related projects. I am happy to report that this year there were more specific space projects than in past years. There are always many terrestrial solar power projects because this is a hot topic from the terrestrial point of view, but there were several rocket-related or space-related projects as well this year. I really like that this NSS-NT project encourages students to pursue STEM education and encourages space-related career ideas. It gives a real opportunity to interact with and encourage students, and is a really fun chapter project.”

The experience of presenting their project and being asked tough questions is invaluable for the students, and NSS of North Texas is cultivating this by inviting their special award winners to exhibit their projects at the chapter’s annual Moon Day event in July.

Folks of a certain age like to talk about “inspiration”: if we “inspire” kids we’ll have a bright space future, if we “inspire” people they’ll realize how important this space thing is, if we “inspire” people, NASA will get as much money as they need. We’ve been hearing this mantra for decades, and yet look at where we are. As someone with an economist’s background, I tend to see things in terms of incentives and opportunities. What incentives do young folks have today to pursue a space future tomorrow? What opportunities (especially for recognition) does the space field offer them?

As someone with an economist’s background, I tend to see things in terms of incentives and opportunities. What incentives do young folks have today to pursue a space future tomorrow? What opportunities (especially for recognition) does the space field offer them?

Speaking of incentives, the local science fairs offer great examples of how incentives lead to results. At the Dallas Regional Fair, the awards are dominated by one local school district, and it’s not the Dallas ISD. Judges have no idea what schools the kids attend, and we pointedly do not want to know as it may invoke a conflict of interest. This particular school district incentivizes (with money) its teachers to produce science fair winners. And produce they do, a lot of them. Over in Fort Worth, the awards are dominated by a special math and science academy at a local university. By having the resources of the university available to them, the students are able to produce undergrad level posters for the high school science fair. Incentives and opportunities work.

All space exploration and/or development advocates are urged to consider supporting your local science fairs. They always need judges, and the kids need the encouragement. With an increasing focus on standardized testing, it’s easy for things like science fairs to fall by the wayside as teachers focus on other priorities. At The Moon Society (TMS) we’ve looked at providing direct scholarships for lunar research, as well as providing matching funds to TMS chapters that provide scholarships at their local science fair. There are a lot of ways to approach it, from volunteering as a regular judge to underwriting a scholarship.

This is a powerful tool that the space community can use to get its messages across to the public. Use it.


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