Student science and engineering competitions come to a boil in the spring. School programs often feed into regional events like the Mercer Science and Engineering Fair in Lawrenceville, N.J., which I help run (see the figure). In turn, our winners will compete in the annual Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Reno, Nev., run by the Society for Science and the Public.
While Intel is a commercial concern and the Society for Science and the Public is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, volunteers are responsible for most science and engineering competitions. Students won’t have the opportunity to show off their work without the effort put forth by these dedicated volunteers.
Yet getting volunteers involved is a challenge. Even finding enough judges with the necessary technical experience to spend a day interviewing students and checking out their projects can be daunting.
It is surprising how many companies won’t give employees a day off to help out at these worthwhile events. Luckily, enough companies do because we need all the people with the proper background that we can get to judge the hundreds of projects that show up each year.
These days, funding can be a problem, too. Companies are cutting back, and major layoffs make participating in events such as science fairs a luxury. Unfortunately, most efforts already run with minimal funds, so any cuts are critical.
It’s tough to take the long view because the potential of the students who will be affected won’t be fulfilled for years to come. Dropping the ball now—or losing the court completely—will have a negative long-term effect on science and engineering in the United States that may be difficult to mitigate.
Science fairs are just one facet of these competitions. Robots are in bloom this time of year as well. One of the largest and most publicized competitions is FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics.
I’ve covered FIRST a number of times, including videos for our online sister publication, Engineering TV. Check out the interview with Woodie Flowers, the Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, for an inspirational take on students and volunteers at www.engineeringTV.com.
FIRST is only one of many robotics competitions available to students and needing volunteers. There’s also the BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) Robotics competition and the Trinity College Fire Fighting Robot contest.
Robot competitions tend to cost a bit more to support than science fairs because of the hardware. Yet support requires an enormous number of volunteers, and not just volunteers with science and engineering backgrounds. We need marketing mavens and public relations wizards too.
Judges require engineering and scientific expertise, but judging is a small part of the work required. Fundraising, scheduling, planning, and a host of other chores are what really make these events possible. Participation has a major impact on students because of the effort and planning involved on their part. These competitions are one way to reward them.
I’ve attended, judged, and worked with most of these competitions and have always found them rewarding. So if you live or work near Trenton in New Jersey and can lend a hand, drop me an e-mail. If not, check out your neighborhood. Local organizations can use your talent to provide opportunities to students in your area. It’s where our future scientists, engineers, and leaders will be getting their start.