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Inspiring the Future

Science Fair is More Than a Competition

Science Fair has inspired students around the world for over 100 years, from the tiniest kindergartners to gangly teenagers in high school. Recently, my first grade neighbor excitedly described his science fair project on light waves. Then, he listened raptly about my son’s project with an autonomous humanitarian aid drone. Both science fair efforts are equal in my eyes: the budding first grade scientist exploring the physics of light and a high school senior coding an autonomous drone.

Unfortunately, for some people, Science Fair has gotten a bad rap, in part because it is time-intensive, misunderstood, and often required for a grade. However, when you take the love of science and combine it with the bravery to experiment, science fair projects become something else completely. 

Of course, I had to learn this the hard way. Scarred by my own childhood science fair experience, I’ve never been particularly supportive of the Science Fair; however, I now understand how participation in science fair, early and often, can bring great opportunities for students and the world. It’s unfortunate, but it took my own child’s participation (and success) to fully understand the impact and importance of the Science Fair for so many students.

Last week, 1,700 students from around the world descended on Los Angeles last week for the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Included in those were 14 students from Fairfax County Schools whose projects received Grand Prizes at the 69th annual Fairfax County Regional Science and Engineering Fair featuring over 300 projects. The timeline of events at ISEF was rigorous with hours spent in professional wear (and uncomfortable shoes). 

There is money available at ISEF for scholarships; however, the likelihood of accessing enough money to pay for college is slim. Thus, these students from around the world do this for the love of science, not expectations of grandeur. Nevertheless, there are opportunities for internships, mentors, and great advice from experts, and I suspect that many sponsors at ISEF and at high school science fairs around the country are looking for future employees and projects.

Before our kids traveled to Los Angeles for ISEF, FCPS held a required meeting for the students and parents to discuss logistics and discuss expectations. Just when I thought the meeting was over, they announced that each student team would be sharing their projects. Internally I groaned at the idea of sitting through 30 more minutes of a meeting; however, by the end, I was near to tears, overwhelmed at the incredible work, thoughtfulness, and future of these students and their projects. They found real problems and came up with real solutions that could affect hundreds, if not millions, of people.

It is no big surprise that many of the Fairfax ISEF attendees were from TJ; however, six other local high schools also had grand prize winners. During the presentations, I found that a couple of the projects were incomprehensible because they were so complex (and I lacked the background), but each showed ingenuity, problem-solving skills, and bravery. These were my favorites:

  • Detecting and Degrading Formaldehyde using Synthetic Biology and Engineering Techniques – Many countries, including developing ones, have no efficient or  cost-effective methods of removing formaldehyde from wastewater, so a Sophomore from McLean High School created a device that would “run autonomously, testing polluted water hourly using a motorized pump.”

  • Improving Racial Equity in Skin Cancer Detection via Artificial Intelligence–Realizing that “massive underrepresentation of non-White skin in dermatology research contributes to significant disparities in skin cancer outcomes” a Junior at The Potomac School, developed a model to “capture, upload, and diagnose skin lesion images. The 30 dollar device consequently serves impoverished communities across the globe without access to immediate healthcare.”

  • Robee: A Novel Autonomous Pollinator – A rapid decline of bee populations, when bees are responsible for pollinating about one-third of the world’s food supply led a Junior and Senior from Hayfield Secondary School, to create Robee, “an autonomous, intelligent drone, designed to augment the pollination behavior of bees.”

  • Autonomous Hybrid Humanitarian Delivery Drone – Concern over escalating urban warfare depriving individuals of needed supplies, two Juniors and a Senior from Woodson High School created a drone and “designed and implemented an autonomous guidance program that can operate even under GPS-denied environments, allowing it to navigate through warzones without an operator.”

Each of these projects had equity and human need at their core. They have the potential of improving the lives of millions of people around the world by ensuring food production (Robeez!) or supporting safety and health. These students looked beyond their world to find others to help.

Interest in science fair begins in elementary school. Some schools, like Mantua Elementary, are trying to expand participation in science fair with great success. Students proudly displayed their projects in the cafeteria this spring, beginning a lifetime of brave experimentation.

Without the support of parents, teachers, school, and volunteers, none of this can happen, so consider volunteering as a mentor, sponsor, or judge in Science Fair. Check out resources at FCPS here.

If you would like to learn more about the ISEF projects, please visit here


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