Electronic Design

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What I did on my vacation: the 2005 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). The fair (Fig. 1) was held in Phoenix, AZ this year and it was definitely a treat for me to chaperone the winner of our local science fair, Jonathan Chester (Fig. 2). I have written about these types of high school competitions in the past, and I cannot stress enough their value to students and society as a whole.

The article If It Goes Away, It May Not Return by yours truly (ED Online ID 7940) addressed the possible demise of our local science fair. As it turns out, I am now the president of a newly formed organization that handles the local fair so I can speak with authority about both the local and international level.

For those who are unaware, there is a network of science fairs throughout the world that feed into ISEF. This year there were over 1400 finalists. The top three won $50,000 scholarships and there were hundreds of other awards. Ricoh, a new sponsor, gave away a Segway HT to a happy finalist in addition to a new award highlighting sustainable development. The ISEF site is maintained by Science Service, the organization that actually runs the fair. You can find more of the details about the fair, as well as a complete list of winners and lots of photos, at this website (www.sciserv.org).

At The Fair
For those who have not been to a science fair, ISEF is the culmination of at least a year's worth of work for most of the high school finalists. Some have gone through as many as three other science fairs (school, regional, and state) to get to ISEF, so this is the best of the best. Students must think up their project, get approvals, complete the research and experimentation, create a board, and then present it to the judges. The project defense at ISEF is almost eight hours and the credentials of the judges are impressive. The judges are supportive, but they won't pull any punches. Winning finalists know their project, their research area, and can present this information in a concise and accurate fashion that would put many college seniors to shame. There are a significant number of finalists that have submitted patents on their work. Some past projects have even turned into products.

I've collected a few of the projects here. They are by no means representative of all the project areas, as ISEF has 14 areas and subsections within each of those areas. Project categories range from biochemistry to zoology. There are separate categories for computer science and engineering. If it has anything to do with science and engineering, it is probably at ISEF.

A team project (Fig. 3) was an adjustable wheel chair. The group developed a working model that they demonstrated. Yang Ge from China brought his own walking robot (Fig. 4). It uses a two-axis gyro to track its balance as it walks. The feet have sensors allowing it to handle slightly uneven ground.

Many projects presented information with diagrams and photographs. However, sometimes the artifacts can be interesting. A rotary engine (Fig. 5) was used in a project that utilized alternative fuels. The researcher did real-world tests to check out the hypothesis.

Some finalists look to solve problems that are very close to them. The Adjustable Prosthetic Socket (Fig. 6) was dreamed up by a finalist that has encountered the problem of having a prosthetic socket adjusted and replaced. This is necessary as a person grows. It has practical applications right now.

With over 1400 finalists, you can guess that these few projects just scratch the surface. In terms of size, ISEF is on the order of the Embedded Systems Conference, except that all the projects fit into a booth that's just a fraction of even a 10- by 10-ft. booth. There are no massive displays and everyone must cram a year's worth of work into a compact display and presentation. If you are looking for more information on your local fair, you can track it down through the ISEF site where all the affiliated fairs are listed.

A Little Inspiration
Project setup actually takes two days and all projects must pass inspection. There were half a dozen that were rejected for various causes this year. It does not take this amount of time for any individual to set up their project, so there are other things, such as presentations, to pass the time. One of the most popular presentations is one in which a collection of notable scientists, engineers, and Nobel Laureates answer questions posed by finalists (Fig. 7).

Engineers and programmers will likely know about one person on the panel, Dr. Alan Kay. Dr. Kay worked at Xerox PARC, where the forerunners of the Macintosh, Smalltalk, Ethernet, laser printing, and client-server networks were developed.

Dr. Sally Ride (Fig. 8), the first American woman in space, was the speaker for opening ceremonies. She talked about her wide range of experiences and presented some amazing slides taken from the shuttle. Dr. Ride is also responsible for the Sally Ride Science Festivals designed to bring together 5th though 8th grade girls to experience science.

I'll let you go on the ISEF web site to find the photos of Craig Barrett, chairman of the board for Intel. He looks pretty good with dark shades. He and Sally wowed the finalists while wandering through the exhibits.

Some Winners
The top honors went to three finalists (Fig. 9): Ahmeed Abdulrasool, Gabrielle Gianelli, and Stephen Schulz. I've grabbed these overviews from Intel's ISEF site to give you an idea of the significance of their projects. Not only do they sound impressive, but talking with these finalist reveals their deep interest in their subjects as well as how experienced they already are.

Ameen Abdulrasool (Fig. 10), 18, of Chicago, won a top prize for his Behavioral and Social Sciences project, "Prototype for Autonomy: Pathway for the Blind." Abdulrasool developed a self-contained navigational system for the visually impaired that combines GPS technology, verbal directional signals, and vibratory signal devices worn as bracelets. Abrulrasool's project was inspired by his father, who is blind.

Gabrielle Gianelli, 17, a junior from Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando, Florida, used mathematics to prove that there were once oceans on Mars. For her Space Science project, "Fractal Dimension Analysis of Putative Martian Coastlines," she used data from a topographic map of Mars and taught herself statistics in order to analyze fractals. "Fractals describe things in the natural world that are chaotic. Geological features have specific fractal dimensions. If you know the fractal dimension of something, you can classify what sort of geological feature it is. And that's exactly what I did," she said. Gianelli believes that understanding the geology of Mars will help us better understand Earth. "Earth and Mars are so similar."

Stephen Schultz (Fig. 11), 19, of Gelsenkirchen, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany, won a top prize for his Chemistry project, "From Synthesis to Analysis of Radical Inhibitors." Schulz developed new electrochemical methods to analyze flavonoids, strong radical inhibitors that may combat cancer and other diseases. He miniaturized his process to create an inexpensive "lab on a chip" that has the potential for widespread use in research.

Also At The Fair
The fair was open to the public for two days. Finalists had to answer questions at a completely different level, but as designers and engineers we know that a message often needs to be given to different audiences. It is surprising how well these students described complex material so it could be understood by younger students. One of the failings of many "professionals" is the inability to get their point across to someone other than their peers.

A number of organizations and universities were set up in a different part of the convention center to show off everything from technology to conservation techniques (Fig. 12). This included the Society of Women Engineers (Fig. 13), which was one of many organizations to provide hands-on demonstrations to students. There was also a middle school science fair with Native American students from Arizona reservations.

Some Phoenix Flavor
It was not science and engineering all week. The finalists, parents, chaperones, judges, and all the rest were treated to an array of local tradition, foods, and history. The nearby Heard Museum was opened to the adults, while the finalists got to party and trade pins, a fair tradition. Finalists got a chance to participate in other events during the week. Adults were able to view some of the best Native American artifacts around, along with cultural and fine art created in recent years. This musuem is a must-see if you are in Phoenix.

Another event was held in Copper Square where we found the Arizona Science Center, the Victorian Rosson House and the Phoenix Museum of History. One event brought us a little cowboy humor, music and entertainment. We took in the show at the Rockin R Ranch (Fig. 14). Definitely not as historic place but one worth visiting

The Native Spirit singers and dancers delighted the crowd with an exceptional performance (Fig. 15). They performed at the closing ceremony and at the Heard Museum. As with most such events, it didn't last long enough.

It's Podium Time
Two popular articles in the web pages of Electronic Design include "What's All This 'Woman Scientist' Stuff, Anyhow?" by Bob Pease (ED Online ID 10055) and "Yes, Engineering Is A Woman's Job" by Jill S. Tietjen (ED Online ID 10117). I knew I was going to wade into this mess eventually, and having ISEF as a backdrop seems the ideal time for it.

Being married to an engineer and just having a daughter graduate from Carnegie Mellon with a dual degree in civil engineering and public policy might just give you an idea of where I stand. I also have another daughter who is studying to be a mechanical engineer. She was a three-year winner at our local fair and ISEF. In addition, my son is working to become a chemical engineer, so I have a good deal of firsthand knowledge about the topic. I have also managed groups with men and women. All this does not provide a sampling large enough to make any statistical claims, but I have been able to make a number of observations I think are significant.

I do agree that people have different capabilities, aptitude, and ways to solve problems. While some attempts to quantify this information for large groups may be valid, I tend to take such things with a very large grain of salt because it is often akin to testing methodologies such as every student's nightmare, the SAT. It puts a day's worth of effort into a single number, and is then to be used to determine the course of a lifetime. Luckily, those that are knowledgeable about these things only use the SAT results as part of the equation.

This brings me back to the discussion about women in science and engineering. Almost half of the participants in ISEF were young women. Gender has little to do with the level of participation; the ability to design, investigate, and present their projects; or the ability to compete with their male counterparts. While science fairs are just one area that fosters a love of science and engineering, they do require a wide range of abilities that professional scientists and engineers need to have.

I am sure that every engineer or scientist has had more than one of those "aha" moments when the solution to a problem becomes clear. It may come about because of a new understanding, eliminating a misunderstanding, or thinking of a completely different approach. "Thinking outside of the box" is one of those attributes often sought when looking for new people to join a development team.

It reminds me of an episode that my daughter was involved in while in London attending a science symposium with hundreds of other science and engineering students. One of the events was a scavenger hunt featuring 20 questions with answers that could be found around London. As the teams of four and five scattered, she pulled her team aside and told them there was a better way. A quick trip to a nearby pub provided a platform, literally the bar, from which she made the following statement, "I have 20 questions here and I will buy a beer for anyone who can answer one." Two pitchers of beer was the reward for 19 answers. The cab driver taking them back answered the 20th question. Their group won 100 pounds apiece. They had a great dinner and took their time enjoying the city. Often it is how you approach a problem and look at the limitations and requirements that lead to innovative solutions.

Here are my personal recommendations for our audience of technologists. Get out there and be active. Become a mentor. Help out with a science fair. Get a hands-on science program in your schools. It is surprising how little learning is being done without books and computers. They are valuable, but there is no replacement for hands-on work. You wouldn't want a plumber to work on your copper pipes without knowing how to solder.

But most of all, don't fall into the trap of prejudging a successful outcome based on things like gender, age, or where they received their degree. If you do, you are likely to be less successful than those that choose from a larger group of highly qualified people.

This is not a matter of being politically correct, but rather recognizing opportunity when it arises. You will never get great tennis players from a group that never plays tennis. You also never know how good someone will be as an engineer or scientist if you only let them be administrators. Most of us got into this business because we liked it and because someone inspired us. Be that inspiration.

Related Links

Heard Museum


Intel International Science and Engineering Fair


Rockin R Ranch

Sally Ride Science Festivals


Science Service

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