June 2000


Lab volunteers are ‘fair’ judges of future scientists’ projects

Many future scientists get their first hands-on experience with scientific method in the school science fair. Like many other competitions, science fairs can be formative events that can influence a young student’s eventual career path.

For that reason, judging their exhibits can be a weighty responsibility. A number of ORNL researchers have taken on that challenge recently, lending their expertise as science fair judges for student competitions.

Seventeen ORNL staff members recently served as judges for the Southern Appalachian Science and Engineering Fair. The fair represents the best projects by students from 26 participating East Tennessee counties.

The more than 50 volunteer SASEF judges, representing the ET science community, review exhibits and interview the students. This year more than 400 students participated, sponsored jointly by the Instrumentation and Controls Division and the University of Tennessee. I&C’s Chuck Britton will serve as SASEF’s president for the next two years.

At stake for the students are scholarships ranging in value from $100 to $1000. Senior division grand and reserve champions also receive a trip to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Detroit. More valuable than the prizes, however, is the experience—both for the students and the judges.

“Many years ago my son’s science fair project was selected by his school to represent it in the Southern Appalachian Science and Engineering Fair,” says I&C Division Director Dan McDonald. “It was a big deal for both of us and a very proud moment for me. The awards ceremony was in the gym at the old UT basketball building. There were hundreds of students there with their projects. As I wandered through the exhibits I thought about all of the effort that went into these projects and thought that it was too bad that only a few would be recognized as ‘winners.’

“My son won a copy of the Handbook of Physics from the local chapter of the IEEE Computer Society. He couldn’t have been prouder and to this day has the nickname ‘Champ’ for having won that honor.”

I&C's Dan McDonald congratulates a fair winner: Whitney Stich, a seventh grader at St. Mary's School.
A new wrinkle in science fairs is the on-line fair. Three ORNL researchers recently volunteered to judge for the Internet Science and Technology Fair. In that contest, elementary, middle and high school students from around the nation apply National Critical Technology applications to real-world problems. Their results are provided to judges in a Web-page format.

Engineering Technology Division’s Dan O’Connor, Energy’s Steve Fischer and Solid State’s Richard Kerchner volunteered to judge that one this spring. Writes O’Connor, who put in two hours of judging on each of three projects: “I think this kind of a competition is good and benefits the students. I am sure all of them know more about putting together a Web page than I do after this effort. I would recommend this competition to area schools.”

Another development that pleasantly surprised Andy Andrews, who judged in the SASEF fair, is more girls participating.

“I’ve been a junior division physics judge something like five out of the last seven years, and it has always been dominated by boys—typically one girl and 15 or so boys. This year we had about 24 competitors in the division and only three or four were boys,” says Andrews.

“I have no idea what caused this change. Maybe it was just a statistical fluke. I hope it was a trend!”

Besides Andrews, this year’s SASEF judges were Martin Hunt, Jim McEvers, Dick Anderson and Marc Simpson of I&C; T.J. Blasing of the Energy Division; Martin Grossbeck of the Metals and Ceramics Division; Sigmund Mosko of the Physics Division; Jim Conklin, John Whealton, Uri Gat and Bruce Bevard of the Engineering Technology Division; C. Wayne Parker of the Engineering Division; and Stephen Storch and Hank Cochran of the Chemical Technology Division. Award presenters were I&C’s McDonald and Glenn Allgood.

McDonald has seen the science fair pay off first-hand.

“I recently had a great thrill when a graduate student employed by our division took me over to our Science Fair Board of Honor display and pointed out his name as a past division award winner,” he says. “That’s when you realize that supporting these events does make a difference in the lives of young people and in the future of science.”—B.C.