Director of Public Information and Community Involvement
In The News
Many hands make Science Fair happen
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(February 21, 2012) - The afternoon sun angles into the Gildersleeve Middle School library, spotlighting clusters of men and women at library tables, which are covered with clipboards and papers. The adults read quietly, conferring occasionally.
The four dozen scientists, engineers and educators have assembled to judge the work of middle-school students in the school's science fair. They review judging guidelines and project abstracts and listen to last-minute instructions from lead science teacher Tim Criner before dispersing to classrooms to assess the students' work.
Scott Morelen and Floyd Shipman have been to a lot of Gildersleeve science fairs. The school has held 21 of the events, and Criner, pointing to stars adorning the men's nametags, says Morelen and Shipman have been judges in every one. Shipman is a retired NASA engineer. His late wife, Lydia, was an NNPS teacher who taught science at Gildersleeve. Morelen works for Dominion Virginia Power. Other judges are professors at Christopher Newport University or Hampton University. Some work for Jefferson Lab or NASA Langley Research Center.
Science fair presentations used to revolve around the board, a display that boils down a student's work into three tidy panels. These days, at the school and city level, students present their work to a panel of judges using PowerPoint slides. A time limit forces them to be concise. The judges ask questions and occasionally add comments or advice.
Seventh-grader Aaron Hodges had just begun his chemistry presentation, "Gay-Lussac's Law Reconsidered," when an announcement came over the school's public-address system. Unfazed, he paused, then resumed his explanation of the procedures he used to study gas pressure, temperature and volume.
When he finished his summary, judge Larry Sacks, a retired CNU chemistry professor, asked Hodges to explain the difference between Gay-Lussac's Law and Boyle's Law as Hodges' father, Terry, a colonel in the Army's Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Corps, looked on. Another judge, Bob Mazaitis, a retired NNPS teacher, asked about the equipment Hodges used and practical applications for the knowledge gained from his experiments.
Afterward, Hodges thought he'd done "pretty well." His father admitted to being "a little squirmy" on his son's behalf during the presentation. The project, in which Hodges disproved his hypothesis, was awarded the top prize in the Chemistry I division and earned Aaron a ticket to the All-City Science Fair Jan. 21.
Trevor Powell, an eighth-grader competing in the Computer Science division, was the picture of calm as volunteers tried to boot up his PowerPoint presentation. Three of the four judges in the category said they use Macs instead of PCs; they joked about his need for a backup on a flash drive.
Trevor had torn a ligament in his knee and was wearing a cast. His project, "Agent-Based Modeling of the Herd Immunity on AgentSheets," used a specific computer modeling software to predict infection rates in groups of animals with different levels of vaccination. His parents looked on as he and the judges discussed possible applications in human immunizations for influenza. Powell took the top prize in his division.
Rhiannon Edwards also won her category, Biochemistry, with a continuing project that focuses on genetics: "Homozygous Achondroplasia in the Netherland Dwarf Rabbit: Part II." Edwards' 2010 research earned numerous awards and trips to the Tidewater Science Fair and the Virginia Junior Academy of Science. The eighth-grader has pet rabbits, which is what got her interested in dwarfism and genetics.
Kim Beckerdite, one of the judges in Biochemistry and supervisor of Gifted Services for NNPS, called Edwards' research "Very advanced and timely. It's original and authentic learning."
The hardest part of the project for Edwards may be condensing three years of research into a seven-minute presentation. At the Gildersleeve fair, the eighth-grader says, "I had to talk like an auctioneer."
Criner has a pitch to make, too, for science-fair judges. He says he looks for potential participants at lectures or community science events. And, the judges are just part of the production. Adult volunteers are stationed in each classroom to run PowerPoint presentations on the computer and keep track of time. Volunteers also staff a hospitality area for judges. And, students provide directions and escorts for visitors.
Criner would like to see more students enter science fairs. He says participation helps students master 21st-century skills. The research requires independent, critical thinking. Collaborating with others and speaking before the panel hones communications skills. Col. Hodges agrees, saying he appreciates the focus on science but adds, "Writing and speaking effectively are important, too."
Hodges, Powell and Edwards all qualified for the Tidewater Science Fair, with Hodges and Powell winning and Edwards finishing second in the city fair. The regional competition will be at Old Dominion University March 10.