MN State Science & Engineering Fair

Last week I had the pleasure of volunteering as a judge for the Minnesota State Science and Engineering Fair. The top projects from Junior High and Senior High schools all over Minnesota were displayed. “Junior High” or “Middle School” projects encompassed grades 6-8 (which means the students were approximately 11-13 years old) and “High School” projects encompassed grades 9-12 (~14-17 years old).

There were literally hundreds of judges in attendance. It seemed like most of the judges were recruited from the Minnesota Academy of Science membership and from local companies that employ scientists, but anyone with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree or at least two years of experience in the relevant project fields can volunteer to judge those areas. The areas were:

  • Animal Sciences
  • Behavioral & Social Sciences
  • Biochemistry
  • Cellular & Molecular Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Earth Science
  • Engineering: Materials & Bioengineering
  • Engineering: Electrical & Mechanical
  • Energy & Transportation
  • Environmental Analysis
  • Environmental Management
  • Mathematical Sciences
  • Medicine & Health Sciences
  • Microbiology
  • Physics and Astronomy
  • Plant Sciences

There were two types of judges: Grand/General Judge and Special Awards Judge. The Special Awards judges are usually supplied from organizations and businesses that are giving awards to students. Awards criteria for Special Awards can be anything that the organization chooses, and are usually certificates of recognition or cash prizes.  My company sent about a dozen people to judge awards in the fields in which we tend to specialize: Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, Chemistry, Engineering, Medicine and Health Sciences and Microbiology. We were giving out cash prizes and we split the job of reviewing relevant projects up among ourselves.

However, organizations can send in an award without sending in a person to judge for that award. They leave judging up to the discretion of the science fair organizers. If there are judges who finish their assigned categories early, or more judges than are needed, they can get recruited to assign these awards.

Because we sent so many people from our company, a few of us were recruited to be Grand Judges. I was one of those and was to be judging the Plant Sciences, but I arrived (a teensy, miniscule, just a little bit) late and the organizers had assigned that job to someone else by the time I arrived. So I was asked to be a special awards judge for two certificates of recognition, specifically recognizing excellence in science by women presenters.

And I was all like:

animated yay photo: Crusher YAY! crusher.gif

The first award was recognition for Women in GeoScience. There was to be one certificate for a Junior project and one for a Senior project. The second award was recognition for Women In Science, for which there were to be 10 certificates, with three spots to be dedicated to Junior projects.

IMAG0444There were SO. MANY. poster presentations, so this turned out to be a hell of a lot more work than I understood when I first agreed to judge for these awards. To put things in perspective, the goal for my company was to have each person judge no more than 5-7 posters. Grand Judges (those who determine who will advance to the International Science and Engineering Fair) each judge about the same. Depending on the complexity of the project, it can take quite a while to read the poster, grasp the author’s intention, evaluate the quality of the methodology and interview the author.

These special awards, by their definition, required viewing much more than 5-7 posters.

The Geoscience Award thankfully limited the categories to Earth and Planetary Science, Environmental Science and Analysis, Physics and Astronomy, and Plant Sciences. But because they wanted to give one award to a Junior and one to Senior, that doubled the number of posters to view. They had, however, given some criteria for what they wanted to see in a project: Special consideration was to be given to projects that increase public awareness of the geosciences, illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of the geosciences, or promote the sensitivity to the earth as a global system.

The ten Women In Science awards gave ZERO criteria for judging and essentially required that the poor sap who took on the judging consider EVERY FREAKING POSTER that was being presented by a woman. This was rather poor planning on the organization’s part, and I wrote them a letter explaining the difficulties of leaving things this vague. At half time I asked the organizers if there were any other volunteers who could give me a hand, but the stores were tapped. I was advised to do the best I could and was thanked profusely for not throwing in the towel! Since the criteria were vague and the awards were certificates of recognition – not money and not advancement – the consequence of potentially “screwing up” on my part was relatively minor.

I knocked the Women in Geoscience awards out in the morning. The ten Women in Science awards took the rest of the day. To review more efficiently I scanned the abstracts that were printed in the fair catalog, picked out the top 10 (IMHO) exciting or novel Junior projects and top 20 Senior projects and went a-knocking. I had already seen a number of the geoscience categories, so those plus the thirty extra projects made up the sum of my evaluations. Some projects took less time to review, some took more. I read projects and spoke with students up until the last possible minute and then went and made some very hard decisions.

IMAG0441

Judges reviewing poster sessions before the stampede of students was allowed in.

At the Junior level, the most common project format was “How does variable x affect a particular outcome?” For example, the dreaded “What kind of music do plants like most?” One of the gems of participating as a Junior-level judge is being challenged with some of leaps (and misses) of logical and scientific thinking. For example, many of the students had a very lax understanding of how to set up their hypotheses; I saw many abuses of the null hypothesis last week. And while most of the students claimed to have controls, many of them got it wrong (e.g. one participant who wanted to know if yoga relieved stress said that her control was that all of the study participants took the same yoga class). To be fair, study controls are a tricky thing and I’ve met a number of graduate-degreed associates who are unclear on the concept.

At the Senior level (and for several Junior posters), some of the projects were so advanced that I had to bring out my smartphone and/or ask presenters to explain things more than once. These kids were mindblowingly AMAZING. I met one girl who had published her study (which she had conducted as an intern at an Ivy-League school) as the first author in a peer-reviewed journal, two who were submitting their projects for publication, one who had discovered three new species of bacteria, and one who was doing a study involving electromagnetic fields who wanted to more precisely measure one of her inputs, so she learned the basics of the programming language, C, and built her own computer to make sure she was accurate…before returning to the larger question.

There were many projects on the topic of climate change and global warming. That was heartening to see as I believe climate change is one of our top scientific challenges. We’re going to need some smart, passionate scientists working on how to keep this rock running for us in the years to come.

At the end of the day I hobbled down to the judge’s lounge for a much-desired cocktail, met up with and shared war stories with my coworkers, and then drove straight home. I was drained for the rest of the night and most of the next day – and that’s not an exaggeration. I was delighted to be exposed to the youthful enthusiasm of the presenters. I was introduced to so many new concepts as well as to truly unique questions and novel research that attempted to fill gaps in our understanding of how the world and technology around us works. It was beyond inspiring – it was exhausting!

I can’t wait for next year’s fair.

Sex Ed – We’re Doin It Wrong

I was recently accepted as a volunteer for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota-North Dakota-South Dakota. One of the requirements for becoming a volunteer was attending four classes. The first two were introductions to the organization; the third and fourth were educational sessions focused on the basics of sexual transmitted infections (STIs), reproductive health and contraception. It makes a lot of sense to train volunteers in these topics, as the majority of what Planned Parenthood does is provide family planning and sexual health advice, education and health services.

After having attended these last two courses with a group of my peers, I say this: We need to do better at providing the people of this country standardized, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education.

Remember: All of the attendees of these courses want to be there. All of us believe in reproductive planning, promoting sexual health, positive sexuality, and supporting a woman’s right to  have an abortion. We are all supposedly “the good guys”. But goddamn there were some ridiculous beliefs that were shared in that classroom! There were misunderstandings about how common forms of birth control work, what happens during puberty, how certain STIs are spread, how communication with partners can limit the spread of STIs, how to bring up the issue of STIs with a new partner. There were prejudices, preconceptions and privileged opinions about issues such as sex before marriage, how many partners people “should” have, relationship status (monogamous vs. polygamous vs. open marriages, etc.), gender identity, how young someone should be before they have sex, if parents should have a say in whether an underage girl is allowed to have an abortion.

In a country that allows parents to pull their children from classrooms during sex ed…

When sex “education” still seems to come primarily from friends or the internet or those first fumbling encounters…

When sex, birth control, reproduction and sexual autonomy remain taboo subjects that aren’t discussed in “polite” company…

When these things happen we find ourselves in a climate where people speak the right words and espouse the right positions, but we still don’t know what the hell we’re talking about. A lot of people in that room probably walked in thinking they knew all there was too know about the basics of reproduction, contraception and STIs.

Planned Parenthood seems to understand the reality of sex education in this country, and they have taken steps to extend their educational outreach to their volunteers as well as their clients. We can do better.

Ohio STARS 2012 Costume Campaign

Woo-hoo! Halloween is just around the corner! What are you dressing up as? A witch? A pirate? A clown? A nun? An inappropriately sexy fairy tale character?

There are a lot of options for playing dress up during Halloween. While you’re thinking about your costume, the Ohio STARS - Students Teaching About Racism in Society – asks you to think before you settle on a costume. For the past two years they have launched a poster campaign aimed at bringing awareness to racially and culturally insensitive and offensive costumes.

I’d also say have a second thought about woman- and gay-bashing costumes. Maybe leave the ditzy blonde, the dirty hooker and flaming queer costumes at home this year?

These are three of the posters from the “We’re a culture, not a costume” campaign. This year’s theme is “You wear the costume for one night. I wear the stigma for life.” You can click on any of the images to be redirected to the STARS webpage, which includes all six of this year’s posters as well as those from the 2011 campaign, “This is not who I am, and this is not okay.”

.         Asian Stereotype Costume African Stereotype Costume Black Stereotype Costume

I think this campaign is targeted to people who may be unaware of the implicit racism that is prevalent in so many Halloween costumes. Hell, the costume companies do a great job at perpetuating racial and cultural stereotypes in their manufactured, packaged ensembles, and if they say it’s okay… Last weekend I stopped in to one of the temporary Halloween stores that pop up at this time of year and saw getups for a drunk Mexican, a ghetto pimp, and a hillbilly hick. Srsly?

Have fun, dress up as whatever you like. Only you know the company and context in which you and your costume will be seen, and this does play a role in appropriateness. Or maybe you’re going for inappropriate. *shrugs*

No one’s telling you what to wear, just asking you to be aware of what message you and your costume will be sending. Are you cool with it? Cool. Does it make you uncomfortable? Go change.

Gravity Is Just a Theory

This is a post by guest blogger Ellen Bulger.

You Know, Gravity is Only a Theory Too © Ellen Bulger

If I hear “Evolution is only a theory!” one more time, my head might very well explode.

What in hell goes on in the schools? Maybe, instead of the dumbed-down GEE-WHIZ-WATER-IS-WET science that is designed to break the hearts of the kids who really care and bore the living snot out of the rest of the class, we should step it up a bit. It’s not like the kids who aren’t already motivated are learning anything anyway. Maybe we should start explaining the difference between a hypothesis and a theory about the same time kids start growing their little bean plants in paper cups at the back of the classroom. Good gravy, they are taught all kinds of cockamamie prayers at the same age that you have to convince them that library paste is not a foodstuff, no matter how lovely it smells.

If they are old enough to study the life cycle of a frog, they can be exposed to the scientific method*. Just give it to them along with their dip nets and food coloring and magnets. Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for and this is a good thing.

* This probably wouldn’t fly in Texas.

Eugenie Scott at University of Minnesota

I attended Dr. Eugenie Scott’s talk, “Climate Change – Why the Resistance?” at the University of Minnesota last night.

The venue was perfect for the audience size. I sat in the fourth row of the Cowles auditorium in Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Audio was spot on and there were no technical issues to distract from the presentation.

The evening started with a brief message from Will Steger, a very-well known polar explorer and environmentalist who has dedicated a good part of his efforts to educating about global warming and encouraging the world to take action and find solutions to climate change. He outlined the types of global warming denial that we are seeing from different political, economic and religious interests, and spoke about what his foundation is doing to effect changes in strategies for dealing with climate change.

Will Steger gives a brief opening address.

Dr. Scott took the stage after that. She opened by establishing that there is overwhelming scientific consensus that AGW (anthropogenic global warming) is happening, and that while there is an opposing viewpoint (those who deny AGW), that viewpoint is not equally supported by scientists, especially those who specialize in climate science.

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Twin Cities – Get Involved TONIGHT!

There are a couple of interesting-looking events happening in Minneapolis this evening:

Minnesota Voter Identification Amendment – Community Awareness/Education Event

Congressman Keith Ellison is hosting a community forum and panel discussion to discuss the Minnesota Voter Identification Amendment that will be on the Minnesota ballot this fall. Representative Ellison is encouraging constituents to come out and learn about “the dangerous photo ID constitutional amendment and how you can take action to defeat it.”

The forum is taking place tonight from 6:00 – 8:00pm at the Sabes Jewish Community Center, which is located at 4330 Cedar Lake Road S, St. Louis Park, MN 55416. Click here for a map. For last minute questions you can contact [email protected] or call (612) 522-4416.

Dr. Eugenie Scott at the University of Minnesota

Dr. Eugenie Scott will present a free public forum on “Climate Science in Schools: The Next Evolution”. The event is tonight at 7pm and will be held in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Cowles Auditorium (301 19th Ave S , Minneapolis, MN). Here’s the write up about Dr. Scott that I found at the Minnesota Atheists meetup group:

Dr. Eugenie Scott, is the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). For the past 30 years NCSE has primarily focused on defending the teaching of evolution in the classroom. In 2012, in response to complaints from teachers that they were coming under fire for teaching global warming and other climate change concepts, NCSE decided to support the teaching of climate change in addition to evolution.

Scott has been both a researcher and an activist in the creationism/evolution controversy for over twenty-five years, and can address the nature of science in education. She launched NCSE’s new climate initiative in January 2012 and has appeared on a number of media outlets, including NPR’s Science Friday, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, and more. She holds a PhD and eight honorary degrees.

Event sponsored by the Will Steger Foundation and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy.

There’s never a dull moment around this place!

Buccaneer’s Ball in Photos

Finally!

Last Wednesday a bunch of friends and I went to the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Social Science event, Buccaneer’s Ball. Social Science is a quarterly event that SMM holds on a weeknight after normal business hours. The event is restricted to people who are at least 21 years old. The museum brings in cash bars, appetizers, dancers and actors, DJs and special exhibits. The coolest thing for me about Social Science is seeing adults enjoying the regular exhibits (the ones that are usually filled with little kids) – and watching that sense of wonder and curiosity that is usually reserved for a younger set play across their faces.

The featured exhibit this time around was Real Pirates – Arrrr! The friends that I went with are geeks, cosplayers, Ren Fest participants and con-goers, so naturally this happened:

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Calculus: The Musical

On Tuesday a friend invite me to join him for a show at Huge Improv Theater called Calculus: The Musical. It was a small production. Two actors portrayed many different characters, there was no intermission, and there were several frenzied costume changes during the show. Both actors played guitar at points, and one had several pieces on an electric keyboard. It had all the elements that I love in a musical comedy: Witty characters, fast-paced dialogue and action, a dash of slapstick, various overdone accents, a multimedia presentation, a blending of musical styles (from classical to rap and a lot in between), and a man playing Sir Isaac Newton talking to a little action figure of himself (“Little Isaac”) and then having the action figure answer back in a higher-pitched version of his true voice. Okay, that last was specific to Calculus: The Musical and not at all something I look for in musical comedies.

As the name might imply to those among you who are particularly quick-witted, it was about calculus. As a mathphobe who never made it all the way through a calculus course I was worried that all of the jokes would go right over my head. I did miss some of them; several times my friend’s giggling indicated that something humorous had transpired on stage after some dialoguey gobbledygook about derivitives, functions, limits and infinite series. But the writer managed to incorporate calculus without making the storyline completely unintelligible to the uninitiated.

You can listen to songs from the musical at maththeater.com. Here are the lyrics from the only song that I can actually claim to have understood entirely. It’s called 5 Sizes of Numbers:

There are 5 sizes of numbers,
Big Infinity and small Zero,
And the Finite in the middle,
They’re the ones, I’m sure you know.

But now we look between Finite and Zero.
To numbers so small, they’re nothing at all,
But still a little larger than a Zero.
Their name is Infinitesimal.

On the other side of Finite,
There are numbers too large to say,
Infinites are what we call them,
They are big, in every way.

But they will never quite be Infinity,
They’re not quite as big, not even close.
We’ll use all of these numbers in Cal-cu-lus,
The numbers, I love the most.

It only gets nerdier from there. They have a song about Bernhard Reimann in the style of Eminem’s Without Me. Just sayin’.

Calculus: The Musical has been touring nationally for six years, and it stopped in Minneapolis only for a couple of days. But they have shows scheduled from now through May of 2012 in different parts of the country. I had a good time, maybe even learned a thing or two, and it reminded me that I really need to stop procrastinating and start reading that copy of Jennifer Ouellette’s Calculus Diaries that I got for Christmas and have left languishing on my bookshelf for the last year!

A Sad Day in the Science Classroom

I opened up the Star Tribune to a sad story. From the Star Tribune:

Thursday morning, ninth-graders in the second-hour science class at Maple Grove Junior High School had turned their desks toward the science table where teacher Matthew Achor conducted experiments for the class final.

The first time the teacher dropped a match into a jug of methanol, Neuberger said the experiment seemed to work. “It made a loud boom and a little flame,” he said. “Everyone thought that was cool and clapped.”

Neuberger looked down at his paper to begin writing down his observations. “I’m pretty sure he was starting it up to do it a second time,” Neuberger said. “And the next thing I know I’m on fire.”

Several students were injured during this science experiment. One of the students, Dane Neuberger, was severely injured with second degree burns to his face.  All of the students are expected to make a full recovery, and according to the article it doesn’t look like Neuberger will need skin grafts. Only minor damage was sustained to the classroom.

Details are slim in the article, but it sounds like the appropriate actions were taken after the explosion. A fire blanket was used to wrap Neuberger and an ambulance was called immediately. The room was evacuated and the fire department was called to investigate. The article doesn’t discuss the type of bottle or the amount or type of methyl alcohol employed in the experiment.

The science behind what was being taught.

The purposes of this experiment could be to demonstrate an exothermic reaction, oxygen supply in combustions (if a narrow-necked bottle is used as heat, flame and gas exits the bottle, fresh oxygen is sucked back into the bottle, re-igniting any remaining methanol vapor), detonation velocity, expansion of gases, etc.

This video shows the experiment as performed on four different alcohols:

The way it works is that liquid methanol is put into a bottle and allowed to evaporate, leaving methanol vapor in the bottle. Heat energy – a match, in this case – is added to the bottle, causing a combustible chemical reaction. Visible flame and a loud whoosh” is heard during the reaction. The methanol vapors are ignited, and liquid by-product (H2O) is left in the bottom of the bottle.

In the article above it’s mentioned that this teacher had been performing this experiment for years, and I found several online mentions of this as an acceptable high-school chemistry-level experiment. Some sites perform the study outdoors, some indoors. I do not remember this experiment performed when I was in junior high or high school.

Science teachers – Do you use this experiment in your classes? What safety precautions do you employ? For the rest of you – Do you remember this experiment from your days in the chemistry classroom? Did you have any larger-than-intended explosions?

Academic Animal Dissection, FY!

This morning I saw one of my Facebook Friends showing off a t-shirt that really annoyed me:

Image shows a cartoon frog with the words “cut class, not frogs!” and “Don’t dissect.” “peta2″

Of course it’s a PETA shirt, which is one mark against it, but it’s the joyous anti-intellectualism of the message that first slapped me in the face. The cutesy message about cutting class makes me want to take a shower. Remember this summer’s marketing disaster for  JCPenny –  the “I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me” t-shirt? Same sort of thing, but more gender-inclusive; Everyone can be anti-learning with this shirt! 

I’m making a lot of assumptions in these next couple of sentences, but they’ve held true in my experience. Don’t skip class – you miss out on interesting, important information. I’ve found that when I skipped classes, it was harder to grasp the big picture, and so the subject seemed more out of my grasp. Once this downward spiral starts, it’s easy to just pretend that the material is boring or irrelevant because you’re missing an entire hour’s worth (at least) of facts or information! Also, whatever you’ve missed is probably going to be on the test, and you’ll feel a lot less stressed and like more of a superstar if you do well on the test…you know, rather than failing it.

Second – do dissections! It’s not gross, it’s not weird, it’s cool as hell! You are looking at the internal workings of the machinery that drives a living being! The National Science Teacher’s Association supports animal dissection and believes that it can help students develop skills of observation and comparison, discover the shared and unique structures and processes of specific organisms, and develop a greater appreciation for the complexity of life.

The wet lab portions of my high-school and college A&P classes were amazing! Seeing how fine the nerves were, how intricate the cardiovascular system, with all of the tubes going into and out of the heart and through the lungs, and understanding how long the small and large intestines really were as they moved through my gloved hands for a length of time that seemed to go on forever – these experiences fueled my interest in anatomy and inspired me to ask questions in ways that I doubt a computer program would have. So much of what we do these days is digital, and I suspect performing a necropsy on a computer screen would be just another game for me.

So, I was feeling a little grumpy about the “cut class, not frogs” shirt. But this morning on Twitter I found a perfect way to raise my spirits. A teacher at Gaffney High School in Gaffney, South Carolina is requesting donations to help fund dissections in her classroom:

My Anatomy and Physiology students attend a high poverty school that has limited resources and monies available. They are juniors or seniors who have identified their career path to be in the health science field. Some have set goals to be lab technicians while others strive for their doctorates. All of them want to learn and are interested in the structure and function of the human body. We have an enormous amount of fun learning and utilizing the limited resources we have.

My Project: Future nurses, health care professionals, and doctors will be inspired to pursue their dreams by having hands on experience with preserved specimen dissections. Dissection tool kits, virtual dissection tutorials, and basic specimens of sheep eyes, hearts, and brains will create a curiosity of the structure and function of the human body that will last a lifetime.

Science is a difficult and intimidating subject to many teenagers. My goal is to remove these obstacles by providing lessons that motivate my students to learn and strive for a college degree. Hands on activities and labs are the pathway to see my students excel not only in science, but also in their life.

If you can spare $5 (or a few $5!) and you’re feeling sentimental about your old frog dissection days, why not stop by her website and help out? At the time of this posting, Mrs. Greene is only $109 away from meeting her goal.