Monday, March 09, 2009

The Science Fair Circuit

Today I'm down in Washington, DC reporting on the finals of the Intel Science Talent Search on behalf of Scientific American. You can read a few of my postings on their website, including one on Chelsea Jurman's social science project (on teen drinking), one on Smitha Ramakrishna's discovery that Splenda isn't broken down by waste water treatment processes, and Aditya Rajagopalan's experiments with cellulosic ethanol (link to go up soon). In the next day or two, SciAm.com should also post my video interviews with several of the finalists.

I've wound up writing about several national science/math competitions this year, including the Davidson Fellows in September, the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology in December, and now this one. You do see several of the same kids again (Julia Ransohoff, of Menlo Park, CA, joked to me about the "science fair circuit"). For instance, Wen Chyan, who won Siemens, is an Intel finalist, as are Christine Shrock and Philip Streich (who were both Davidson Fellows). I'm glad to see this -- it shows there's a lot of validity to the judging. The best projects are, in fact, the best projects!

But even more, I like the idea of a science fair circuit. Parents of kids with outsized athletic talents soon wind up learning about "travel soccer leagues" and the most competitive summer swimming camps and the like. Most of us only see gymnastics in the Olympics, but all those young athletes know each other well. They've been competing against each other every few months for years. Even less well-known sports like, say, trampoline, feature circuits of competitions.

Why not science? The more competitions that exist, the more opportunities exist for top young scientists to win big bucks and attention. And that encourages more young people to spend their summers and afternoons in the lab. A few years ago, the New York Times magazine ran a cover story on the rise of the "gifted child industry." This put a bit of a less positive spin on these contests. But until you see kids in every city park playing pick-up physics... well... I'm happy for more of a circuit.

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