A few weeks ago I had the chance and pleasure to serve as a special award judge for the Sigma Xi Scientific Society at the Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) held in Phoenix from May 12th-17th 2013. Volunteering at the event was a fantastic and uplifting experience, were I got back much more than I gave.
Although I was initially doubtful, the science fair was truly as international as it gets, with participants from 70 different countries. Some finalists had even brought translators to converse with the judges and the public. The gender composition of the finalists at the fair was also a pleasant surprise; women were well represented at the ISEF, something that I cannot say of many other science events I have attended.
The most striking aspect of my experience is the level of energy at the event. Excitement for Science soared high and the enthusiasm was contagious. This is understandable, since the teenagers had invested countless hours in their projects: they worked on their projects for a year or more, competed locally and regionally to make it as a finalist at the ISEF, flown across the country or further for this special week and carefully prepared every last detail of their kiosk and well-rehearsed presentations. Both boys and girls were dressed to the nines, a number of teams even wearing identical suits. Their level of preparation was truly impressive. Some finalists had primary literature available or memorized, photo books and data books to display, powerpoint presentations, computer simulations, and even miniatures of their field site, experiments or engineering design. Wow! It was truly heartening to see a high-spirited youth passionate about their research projects and Science. Having taught college level introductory science classes where I saw too many examples of students that could not care less about Science – or sometimes about reasoning or writing correctly, for that matter – it was deeply comforting to see hundreds of hard working, eager youth. While there was variation in the quality of the projects presented, the enthusiasm and eagerness was uniformly high.
Further, having to think about a diversity of subjects that I rarely or ever think about was refreshing. I am an Ecologist and I have been thinking about Ecology and Biology days in and days out for about a decade. As much as I love my field, I am fundamentally a curious person and learning about meteorology, psychology, earthquakes, immunology and other fields was revitalizing. Moreover, learning it from 13-17 year olds was endearing. There is definitely something charming about a 13-yr old in a formal suit lecturing you in earnest about weather patterns.
My experience volunteering for the ISEF as a judge was truly enriching and energizing. The love of Science and the excitement emanating from the 1500 young finalists was inspiriting and contagious. I am already looking forward to the 2014 ISEF and I cross my fingers that I will be able to attend. To all the other Science geeks out there that could use a change of pace, I say: Volunteer to the event! It will likely give back much more than what you are giving it.