Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Science Fair

Today, I was reminded why my students are the cream of the crop when it comes to smart kids bound for greatness. It sounds like an exaggeration, but it's not just the personal bias speaking when I say they totally impressed me. I might even say that I see them in a different light now.
CSHS Science Fair 2012. In the foreground, a bunch of students play with some instant-foaming organic insulator they created.
The Changwon Science High School annual science fair took place today. The first-year students have been working on "Research and Education" projects all year, and this is the time for them to present their work thus far. But this isn't your average high school's science fair. My students have been doing some advanced projects in chemistry, engineering, physics, biology, and mathematics. One group, for example, developed a computer program for an alarm system that would tell you if there was a problem with your home's circuit box, and also where in the house the problem lay. Another group made a molecular film that mimicked the waterproofing ability of the lotus leaf. These projects weren't just lab experiments or textbook problems, they were actual research.

The biodegradable fish-based plastic project.
It was way more advanced than anything I'd ever done in high school, at least, and I took AP Biology. Most of the projects I didn't even understand, and it didn't help that the posters were all in Korean. But I had a few of my students try their best to explain what was going on to me in English.

As it so happens, their speaking test for my English class is a three-minute speech that introduces their R&E projects. Seeing as these tests begin next week, many of them have had a little bit of practice already. It helped that I've been reading first, second, and third drafts of their speeches for the past month, so I could recognize the group that made a biodegradable plastic out of fish scales and bones and the group that used 3D imaging programs to predict which geometric theorems of right triangles could be extended to tetrahedrons.

But the real Big Deal at the science fair was the judging portion. Unsurprisingly, the first-years are not just doing these projects for the educational experience, but it's also a competition. There were judges from the regional Office of Education (I assume) who listened to every group give their poster session spiel. (This is the part that my students have been freaking out about for the past few days.) The best groups will get prizes and also advance to a regional science fair. Then, the best of those will advance to the national fair, for their shot at eternal fame and glory. But the competition is fierce every step of the way. (How do I know this? Oh, right, I've seen it before.)
The sonoluminescence group captured light emitted from bubbles excited by sound waves. Okay, I don't know how sonolumniscence works. My students are smarter than I am. THEY BUILT THIS.
Besides R&E, lots of artistic odds and ends on display.
(stuff from their other classes, like environmental-sci)
So what's the ultimate motive for all of this is? You guessed it: university. My first-years have taken their first steps in a year-long frenzy to garner as many academic accolades as they possibly can in preparation for their early applications to university next fall. If they place in a regional or national science fair, that's a huge boon to their prospects. Last year's class (the school's first graduating class) had a handful of students advance to the national level, I believe, but I'm vague on the details.

But you know what? Wandering around the gym and marveling at all of these projects, you wouldn't be able to tell that the atmosphere was buzzing because of stress and anxiety. Unless you asked a student who hadn't met the judges yet. Otherwise, there was a buzz of excitement in the air.

Besides the students, teachers, and judges, lots of parents were there to see what their children had produced. This includes my host father, who came to take a look at my host sister's project on the effect of UV radiation on photosynthesis.

And then, when the second-year students -- all of whom had to go through this experience together last year -- descended upon the gym to check out this year's crop, there was this near-carnivalesque atmosphere that... well, that wasn't a carnival, obviously, but do you get what I'm saying? It was just so exciting. The students were naturally curious about their work, probably did a little bit of bonding over their shared experiences. Of course, the second-years also came for the free coffee and snacks, but most of it was gone before they'd arrived. Oh well!
Host sister and her group, with their irradiated lettuce plants.
I took tons of photos and chatted with all of my students, all of whom were very proud to show me their work and explain it to me -- to varying degrees of success. Later on, I hung out in the gym with the students who had finished their presentations and we chatted. I'm getting to know the first-years a lot better now (at the expense of the second-years, which is sad, but I don't teach most of them anymore...), and I think they appreciated that the only things I really said to them all day were, "Your project is awesome!", "You're so smart!", and "Good job!" Some of them looked like they needed the encouragement, anyway.
A student rehearses his presentation while snacking. His project tried to identify the mechanisms in bees and other small insects which allow them to survive being hit by drops of water (when it rains).
So I'm honest when I say my students really impressed me. I really hope the best for all of them in the rest of their high school careers, as I've realized how maddening and soul-crushing it can be for them. I've also seen how my students light up when they talk about science or math and, well, a part of me wishes that they could have the same enthusiasm for English. For the most part, though, I'm extremely happy for them, and I can only hope that they retain that passion for the field that is likely to become their lifelong pursuit.

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