Bwah-ha-ha-ha. I’m Just a Mad Science Judge!

Today I did the annual ritual of spending a vacation day to volunteer as a judge at the California State Science Fair. As I always say, this is a tiring but rewarding experience, exhilerating to see the quality and talent of our kids these days. If you are free to be in SoCal in late May, please volunteer. We need you.

Today, I was the panel chair for the Junior Math and Software panel. We had 26 projects and 11 judges. Let me talk about some of the projects in my panel that piqued my interest or were otherwise noteworthy:

  • Project J1302 looked at sending signals in artificial neural networks using temporal signals. It received an honorable mention; I had some problems with the utility of the timing signals and though an error correcting code would be appropriate.
  • Project J1308 from a 6th grader was an example of presentation problems. This was a super sharp kid who taught himself calculus in 6th grade, but the concepts in his project were so advanced he couldn’t successfully convey them to the judges.
  • Project J1309 looked at modeling the behavior of the 1918 influenza epidemic using SIR models. This 8th grader knew her stuff, was able to convey it, and rolled with the punches when we suggested changing variables. This was the 1st place panel winner.
  • Project J1310 was an 8th grader who came up with a solution to Rubiks Cube (not knowing group theory), and then implemented a program to solve it in Mathmatica. 2nd place.
  • Project J1312 was an 8th grader from Davis who attempted to correlate their car’s odometer with GPS by adding vectors.
  • Project J1314 was a 7th grader who reprogrammed his Roomba and used it to race his brother in a maze. Honorable mention.
  • Project J1317 was a 7th grader who attempted to evaluate operating systems, feeling Linux was better than MacOS or Vista. Although his conclusion may be right (depending on task), he really didn’t understand the operating systems well.
  • Project 1318 was an 8th grader from Fresno who attempted to mathematically determine based on the offer whether the banker in Deal or No Deal has knowledge of what is in the case. Think of it as an advanced Monty Hall problem. Honorable mention.
  • Project 1321 was an 8th grader who developed an algorithm to prune network graphs in order to save memory. He was sort of weak on what the graphs were used for. 3rd place.
  • Project 1323 was a 6th grader who investigated spirolaterals to determine what factors made them close. Honorable mention.
  • Project J1324 was an 8th grader who looked at the Monterey Pennisula road network, from Carmel to Seaside, to determine what the critical paths were and whether there were single points of failure, critical information for infrastructure planning. Yes, I had fun with this. 4th place.

As usual, our category had a lot of projects from San Diego and Fresno. There were at least two projects from the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, one from Flintridge Prep in La Canada Flintridge (which had some other students in as well), and a mix of other areas.

After the panel judging, I got to do project of the year. In this, we looked at all the projects that won in each category. Here’s a summary of what I remember; some were quite amazing:

From doing this effort, what advice would I give would be submitters? Know your stuff. Build it yourself, including your measuring equipment. Explore something that is meaningful to you and that you are excited about. Present the information cleanly, and be able to communicate — both on your board and verbally — what you did. Don’t be afraid to try.

Lastly, the fair was in a new location this year: the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. This venue, which has lost its two major tenants (USC and the LA Clippers — I can’t bring myself to call them collegate or professional teams :-)), seemed sad. It also seemed quite small. It’s also old — built in 1959 — and fighting for its survival against the Staples Center and other venues. At least it is unlikely to suffer the same fate as the LA Forum.

All in all, a very fun day.