Somehow I escaped the public school system without doing a rite of passage: the science fair. In a way I think I’ve been compensating for that ever since; brainstorming ways to experiment with recipes, making silly putty (on accident) and participating in citizen science projects. So when I was asked to judge the Science Fair Finals for the students of Triangle Math and Science Academy, it was as if someone had finally asked me to the ball; I was ecstatic, what will I wear? Then, as if judging the science fair wasn’t excitement enough, I got to set up a Your Wild Life table and answer questions about insects for parents and students milling around. There were magnifying glasses, specimens of ants suspended in gel, big beautiful pictures of ants taken by Alex Wild, and, of course, Pecan Sandies. It was like my own personal kiosk of happy at the science fair.

What was even more surprising was that the students were familiar with the School of Ants and Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants; they even took the time to teach me about the ants, and I got to ask the questions of them! They correctly identified the ants in the vials and even told me a little about their life history as they recalled from the Book of Common Ants. Some students even brought other students to the table to teach them about the insects! As all of this was unfolding I was completely beside myself; these students are exceptional. I couldn’t wait until I could take a look at their science and discuss their projects with them.

I met up with the other judges and after a brief rundown of the judging process I was armed with my clipboard and started to walk around surveying each of the projects before formally evaluating my group. You practically had to pick my jaw up off of the floor. There were blood pressure assessments, a video game about sustainable fishing (that I got to play!), social science experiments, even an elegantly designed experiment with solar panels and magnifying glasses. It was clear that these students were passionate about asking questions about their world and coming up with creative ways to answer those inquiries. My favorite question to ask was, “If you were to run this experiment again, how would it differ?” I could tell they were taken a little by surprise, but they always had insightful answers, especially lighting up at the prospect of continuing to do experimental science projects – for fun. They easily grasped the concept that the more they worked on a particular problem, the more questions they invariably had about that problem.

It was especially interesting asking why they became interested in that particular project. For the most part, their questions were original or had a personal story (one girl studied Stevia since she had recently lost a grandparent to diabetes; another liked different art than his mother and was curious about the correlation between age and art size preference). Their interest and process in selecting and designing projects wasn’t very different from the process that professional scientists go through: investigation powered by curiosity.

Personally, I can’t wait to see the future of science fairs as we learn more about what is happening in our backyards, inside our homes, and on our bodies. This next generation of scientists is armed with so many tools to explore our world; they just need to start asking the questions.

If you are ever asked to volunteer as a science fair judge, I say go for it. Remind the students that they are the experts in their field and their experiment. Encourage them to keep inquiring about their world; after all we never know who will make the next discovery. Reinforce the importance of their science; this will give them the confidence that they may need to pursue science as a career. Support young students of science in their endeavors to answer their own questions. Lastly, remember what it was like to start asking questions about the world out there – the more you found out, the less you realized you actually knew – it’s easy to feel small surrounded by all of that unknown.

Hey, I haven’t wrapped up this discussion on Science Fairs yet. In an upcoming post, I’ll take a look at how students (and teachers) can get some good science done at science fairs with a little help from scientists. Check out the discussion we had last November and contribute your own ideas using #kidsdoscience on Twitter.