How do you know if something is true? One headline might tell you red wine reduces your risk of cancer. Maybe another tells you it increases your risk. Which is it? Should you drink red wine? Often, parts of both sides will be true, which is one of the huge challenges of science communication.
For example, in scientific research, one study might be short-lived, but with a big result, while another might be the result of years and years of analysis that just lead to uncertainty. These are “yes, if” and “no, but” kinds of answers that don’t lend themselves well to the modern news cycle. How can someone make sense of the world around them when the ground keeps shifting? Unless you have the tools to answer questions for yourself, it might be easier to believe the thing that you most want to be true. This is why I think teaching critical thinking – not just learning about the results of science, but the how of answering questions – is the greatest way to empower people to interpret their world.
Everyone working in or adjacent to STEM fields should be asking themselves how they can teach others to answer the questions they have and finding an outlet to do it based on their personal experiences and where they have the most to offer. For one of my friends, who is a climate scientist, it was giving a casual talk about snow melt in a bar in the small town where she’s skied since she was a kid. For me, this outlet has been the world of competitive science fairs.
The ability to answer questions in my independent research came from years of people (teachers, friends, science fair judges) asking me those questions. What question do you want to answer? How might you answer it? Has anyone else asked that question before? What did they find and how can you build on it? Are there other questions you need to answer first? How can you verify your answer if you get one? How else might you test it? How will you know how certain you are that your result is correct? This line of inquiry for me is true science. It’s also basically a science fair interview and serving as a judge is a very direct way to cultivate critical thinking.
Building communication skills and flexibility:
One of the biggest challenges for people who have been trained in STEM fields at the college and post-graduate levels is learning how to communicate with people at all stages of their scientific knowledge. All of those stages are represented if you are judging a middle or high school regional fair. Some of the kids are there because their project was required as part of their curriculum. Some of them are there because they had a question they wanted to answer, and they did their best to design a project to answer it. And some of them have a voracious thirst for scientific inquiry and are likely to at least consider degrees and careers in science. But each of them has a next step to reach for.
As a judge, my goal in the moment is to identify the student’s stage with their research and encourage them to take their thinking to that next level. Sometimes this will be pretty basic; however, when I’m judging outside my area of expertise, it can be a challenge. Either way, I’m tasked with communicating effectively and supportively with someone who’s relatively new to science. It’s useful for the students to be pushed a little bit in their thinking; and it’s useful for scientists to practice dialing back from their incredibly specific expertise and into the core questions that are the underpinnings of experimental design.
Preparing for engaging conversations:
The day after I defended my PhD, I got online and registered to judge at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), where I had been a student competitor a decade before. In between, I was happily judging regional science fairs, but when I was approved to be a Grand Awards Judge in Microbiology, my excitement was through the roof. I really enjoyed the energy and sense of community that I experienced at the international event and looked forward to returning.
My role as a judge at ISEF, like at a regional fair, is to encourage, communicate, and meet the students where they are and help them reach the next step. But at ISEF, these kids wouldn’t be there if they weren’t pretty into it. They’ve won their regional fairs. For some of the international students, they are the sole representative and grand winner from their entire country. These interviews don’t need to start with a safe “so tell me about your project” testing of the waters. You’re more likely to jump right in with “I noticed that you chose (x) delivery mechanism for your treatment, can you speak to me about the potential off-target effects?” This requires some not insignificant preparation.
The day before judging, I spend time at each of my assigned posters without the students present and make notes on the abstract for things I want to bring up in interviews. I often have to do speed research to understand at least some background for topics that are outside my own areas of study. For the projects I’m not assigned, I try to at least skim the abstracts to identify projects where I have a specific expertise to offer comments during the judging deliberations. Last year I judged 19 projects, but there were 87 in my category; it’s as important to have the big picture as the details. I know this sounds like a hefty commitment, but in the grand scheme of thing it isn’t; it’s just an intense commitment for its brief duration. Energy, not time – and it’s the best sort of energy. The conversations that you look back on from early in your scientific career when you really got into a topic with a peer or mentor and felt that glowing passion of learning and discovery – those are the conversations you are about to have. These high school students will carry that ember with them in the future, and I always find that after a day of interviews I carry incredible hope.
Judging as a tool for education:
In this era of mistrust toward science, I find myself gravitating back to the first principles and practices that taught me how to find answers in my world. And I want to help interested students take whatever steps are next in their reasoning – whether it is thinking about what they’d do differently or thinking about whether they can make their code adaptable enough to incorporate new models. At a fair like ISEF, those next steps hopefully keep them in science, supported and full of belief in their ability to better their world. But even for the students who follow other pursuits, they’ll take what they have learned about how to ask and answer questions with them.
See a full list of ISEF-affiliated fairs here to identify your local judging opportunities: https://findafair.societyforscience.org/