Judging Science Fair a prized lesson

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By John Bartlit

This year’s Los Alamos County Science Fair drew 157 entries. The last Saturday morning in January, I was at the high school cafeteria. The room was abustling with fresh hopes and ideas.Our three-judge team had six special awards from the Sierra Club to give for the best projects on the environment. Projects are in categories by field of science and student class – elementary, junior, and senior (high school). Winners were announced in last Thursday’s Monitor.To start our judging, our team first had to decide which projects to judge. Exactly what is part of the environment, and what is something else?Environment itself is two fields: the science and the management. But many nearby fields also crowd in.Some projects, but not all, in animal science fit in. The same is true of plant science, life science, biology, engineering, energy and transportation, even chemistry, physics, computer science and human behavior.

Lesson One: The environment is an aggregate of many factors and lots of science.

Early in my strolls, these old eyes noticed how much kids and computers work on each other. Technical sources cited in projects are most often websites.At the junior and senior levels, judges talk with the students about their projects. The friendly chats reveal still more factors, which move further from science. Or more to the point, which stretch the science.For instance, economics soon rears its head – and does so in several ways. Science fair projects, like major-league science, are limited by finances to do the work.The ideal equipment for the project may cost too much, which calls for ideas on other ways to do it. Ingenuity is the word. Judges saw many examples of it at the fair.Likewise, the ideal solution to a problem made clear by science may cost too much. So science finds other, less costly ways to do it. Ingenuity again.Again much like major-league science, some projects at the science fair met with bureaucracy.One study of Ponderosa pine trees affected by the Cerro Grande Fire sought to study a plot on laboratory property. It was a good plot to study, because the trees were thinned.From the unduly long process of getting official approval, the student told me she learned three things: start early, be persistent and supply good reasons. Mighty good things to learn.Besides economics and bureaucracy, a third reality that stretches science is having to deal with trade-offs.One project studied the habitat of harbor porpoises. The goal was to use factors in their habitat to keep porpoises from being accidentally caught by commercial fishing methods. The study found this did not work well: porpoises and commercial fish share the same habitat. The study concluded other ways should be sought to keep harbor porpoises safe from fishing nets and tools.Always a good use of science is to find better ways to avoid unwanted trade-offs. A problem on the list is keeping porpoises safe while catching needed seafood.

Lesson Two: Doing science has to cope with economics, bureaucracy and trade-offs.

Lesson Three: Science is a major tool society uses to cope with economics, bureaucracy and trade-offs.

All in all the day had much to say.I offer a final thought. Kids are refreshingly different from the granitic partisans on public display these days. Students at science fairs surmise they may not know the whole story. An inkling that more can be useful to know is the magic key to improving anything.The inkling was much in evidence at the Los Alamos County Science Fair.

John Bartlit is with New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air & Water.