Guest Post by
As a recent former Chair of one of the oldest state science fairs in the country, I can tell you that the topic of homeschool student participation in science fairs has been a major discussion point at many board meetings over the years. In the past, many fairs found it difficult to involve students who didn’t have school mentors to assist in the process, or insurance from their local school districts, to cover any accidents while conducting a project. Or, other various complicated legal or practical obstacles. But, things have changed, and fairs have found ways to work around many of these issues. In recent years, more and more fairs have begun to do more specifically to reach out to the homeschooling community.
Often homeschooling parents will be frustrated both with the lack of information and support, and the sometimes overwhelming bureaucracy of science fairs . And fairs at different levels don’t necessarily talk to each other or work with each other (i.e. districts, regions, state and national/international fairs). There are pre-approval forms, science review committees, and various safety checks and other things to do, before even starting your project. Often, fairs discourage parents from “too much” participation in a student’s project. It’s viewed as a way of making things fair for all students; the same policy applies to all parents to ensure that students are doing their own work. It’s understandable why some homeschooling families don’t want to bother with whole science fair process. Well, the climate seems to be changing rapidly, as traditional fairs, math competitions, robotics/maker fairs, virtual science fairs (Google has a great one) and other types of STEM-related informal educational activities have been competing to get more student participation. At the same time, fairs and other competitions have been offering ever-increasing prizes, to attract and reward top science talent. At the MA State Fair, we offer around a half million dollars in prizes, including some full patent awards each year (which can cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars) to the most patentable ideas. Science fairs are no longer just about demonstrating the understanding of scientific method, as they were in the recent past. Now, science fairs have become a place where real-world science and engineering gets done, where students get their work published or patented, and even as Freshmen, are sought out by the very top research institutions and companies in the world. It’s a very rewarding experience in many ways, andit is wonderful that homeschooling families are participating in ever-increasing numbers each year.
Yet, one of the other major concerns I’ve heard over the years, especially from homeschool parents, is that access to lab resources is sometimes geographically challenging and also, often, costly. It’s hard to find projects where you can do something meaningful without spending lots of time and money obtaining data. This too is changing!
As a student, my own project looked at the evolution of dinosaurs into birds, using both microscopy and biochemical data, with real fossilized and modern eggshells. I would then crunch the data using algorithms I set up in mini-databases. It was very cross disciplinary, and that is where things seem to be heading more and more. The more disciplines you can include in your project, the more your judges believe that you are not just a deep scientific thinker, but a broad scientific thinker, who can link and bridge common ideas from otherwise very disparate subjects. While I did use some resources and materials that had a cost to them, nearly all of these were donated. Getting the data was indeed difficult, but the most innovative portion of my work was really done on computers. Admittedly, obtaining rare fossils and getting access to fancy equipment is certainly a barrier to entry and an impressive feat. But, I do think judges focus on innovation rather than the work done to obtain the raw data. Now, both as a science fair judge, and an administrator/policy maker, I can tell you data doesn’t win fairs.
Since that time, I’ve gone on to do research and business in various scientific and technical fields. Whether it’s been working on diamond-based solar cells to new types of electrosurgery tools to planarization techniques for semiconductors, one of the key things that I’ve noticed over time is that things have gotten much easier to connect research data to the people who need that data. From simply sharing scientific experiment results / engineering tweaks more freely, to sharing rich data that demands large storage space, to crowd-sourced data, to publicly funded data, the DATA itself is becoming simpler to access. Maybe not entirely trivial to the research community, but for science fairs and the world of inquiry based education in general, it’s becoming less and less important as time goes on. And that’s a really great thing for science fair parents who don’t have funds readily available to contract out lab work, or to set up their own labs at home. There are now very compelling, top award winning science projects (including this year’s very top ISEF winner, who also happens to be from Boston, MA), that require nothing more than an Internet connection. So, if you’re reading this, then you’re all set to go win lots of science fairs.
SEGWAY INTO A FUN ACTIVITY:
While I’ve worked in a variety of different high tech and low tech fields, my true passion has always remained fossils. During my years working in field paleontology, we’d dig out bones and bring them back to universities and museums, only to have most of the bones sit there for years, unstudied. Aside from a research paper and a talk at a conference or two, the data about those finds would be limited (perhaps a handful of photos, diagrams and measurements) and would reach a fairly limited group of people. But nowadays you can shareentire fossils as high resolution3D files (in addition to chemical or other data), and 3D print them yourself (or just look at them on your screen), to study them in your own lab, museum or home in greater detail anytime you want.
FUN ACTIVITY TIME:
Here’s a super fun activity you can do at home with your young student to demonstrate the idea of how easy it is to share, manipulate or use complex data – specifically 3D/spatial data – with (almost) no costs involved. Whether or not you like fossils, there are lots of different types of science projects that you can do with this technologies – the possibilities are endless!
Get a digital camera or camera-capable phone, and an account with Autodesk 123D Catch (http://www.123dapp.com/catch). Following their instructions, take a series of pictures of an object and upload it to their server. In a short while, sometimes ranging from minutes to hours, they compile the pictures into a 3D image, which you can look at on your screen, share with your friends, or if you have a 3D printer (which not a lot of people have), you can print one out yourself. Or you can just use their online repository of objects and their special 3D-slicer program to make paper stencils so you can create your own real-world physical specimens or engineering related objects. Imagine using that tool to share data about an objectwith your friends, without having to actually to bring that object over their house. Makes it a lot easier, especially if your friends live on the other side of the world!
If you prefer to skip that step, and simply want to try and make your own cool life-sized 3D printed object, without photo- “scanning” an object into their system (or searching for an object and using their “slicer” tool), here’s a much easier way to start. Relating to my own interests, which are ancient fossils, you can go to www.africanfossils.org and click around their virtual museum, find an ancient hominid skull of your choice which already has PDF 3D stencils, and print them out. These stencils have already been pre-sliced for you! Just get some scrap cardboard, scissors (or maybe an exact-knife if that is allowed in your home or appropriate for your child’s age), and glue. Either cut and trace the stencils, or just glue the stencils right onto the cardboard. They’re numbered, so just put them together in the proper order, using their alignment guides. In anywhere from an hour to several hours (depending on the model you choose), you can have your very own sort-of-3D-printed human skull fossil right there on your table.
Barnas serves on the Board of Directors of the not-for-profit MA State Science & Engineering Fair, and most recently served as its Chairman for a number of years. He was also one of the most successful science fair participants in MA history – and beyond. He had 4 1st place regional science fair wins, 4 1st place state wins, and 2 1st place International ISEF wins, in addition to a number of 1st place special awards and scholarships. His projects were predominantly on dinosaur and bird eggshells structures and biochemistry, but he also studied computer science and technology too. Later in life, Barnas, along with friends he met at science fairs, started several successful companies in software, semiconductors, energy and healthcare. He truly enjoys working in different STEM disciplines and teaching others. In addition to his work at MSSEF, he has also served as a Co-Chair on the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council and the Department of Education’s Math & Science Advisory Council. He is the author of several children’s books onSTEM topics, including an upcoming book about science fairs and dinosaur/bird evolution called “Dinosaur Eggs & Blue Ribbons”.