By Jim DeLa
New College staff recently volunteered as judges to encourage the next generation of scientists and researchers at the Sarasota County Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Fair.
Marina Mangie, the marketing coordinator for admissions, and Travis Hardin, New College’s assistant director of new student recruitment, joined other professionals, educators and scientists who evaluated 250 high school and middle school entries, as well as 400 projects from elementary school students Jan. 30-31.
They arrived at Robarts Arena, where students had set up their project boards the day before. Event organizers briefed judges on procedures. The judges then learned which projects they would be evaluating and examined thedisplays, log books and supporting research materials the fair required each student to provide.
Armed with notes and questions, the judges waited for the school buses to arrive. The students soon filed in, taking their places beside their display boards.
Mangie judged six student projects from several different schools. She said most students seemed to know their subject matter well, “especially in terms of how the data is applicable to the real world.” She was slightly frustrated that after evaluating students’ work in several areas, she could only assign a number grade, from 0 to 5. “I’d love to give them qualitative feedback,” she said. “I also like the fact that many of these projects are focused on educating the public on environmental matters.”
Hardin enjoyed talking with students about their research. “For high school, they’re really well spoken,” he said. “I’m impressed by their ability to do research and articulate it.”
He spent time talking with Salma Leon, a 10th-grader from Booker High School, who did an experiment to see if climate change could have an effect on the metamorphosis of Monarch butterflies. After her interview, Leon admitted defending her work to a judge can be intimidating. “I was scared at first, but you know your stuff so well that it goes away.”
Mangie spent several minutes with Marcos Bautista, a ninth grader at Suncoast Polytechnical High School in Sarasota, about his STEM Fair project, which compared the effectiveness of Roundup, a popular but toxic weed killer, with nontoxic alternatives.
He said he got the idea for his project from his father. “My dad’s a landscaper. Roundup is expensive, and it’s not good for my dad.” He set up patches of weeds and compared Roundup’s ability to kill them with household concoctions containing ingredients such as salt, vinegar and Diet Coke. His findings showed some of the homemade herbicides worked just as well, and some even better, than the commercial product.
After several interviews, Hardin began totaling up his scores. “Judging is tough,” he observed. “All of my projects were good.The scores are really close together.”
Bev Stancel, the county’s middle school program specialist for science and health, says the judges’ interview counts for 25 percent of the students’ total score, for good reason. “It’s the most important piece,” she said. Being able to answer questions about the project and the process is critical. “They (students) need to know their data, their results.” In the end, she said, “It’s not about what’s on their board. It’s what in their brain.”
— Jim DeLa is digital communications coordinator for New College of Florida.