Science Fair: 2012

Today was the 2012 California State Science Fair, and as usual, I was the chair of the Jr. Math and Software Panel. This year we had 21 projects + one no-show, and a large panel of 11 judges. The focus of the projects varied widely: simulating and playing games, writing useful programs, navigation, exploring math theorites, security, and many other topics. Here’s a run down of the winners and some of the other projects.

Our first place project, “Computer vs. Human: Exploring AI in the Game Blokus” was by last year’s winner, continuing her exploration of the game Blokus. This little 7th grader from Orange County knew her stuff down pat: she knew the game, she programmed a wide variety of different strategies such that she determined the winning algorithmic approach to playing the game. As I indicated before, games were a common theme: an honorable mention project from two 7th graders addressed Tic-Tac-Toe (“Artificial Intelligence: Teaching a Computer to Play Tic-Tac-Toe“) with an innovative learning strategy; another project from a 7th grader in Marin County explored which player had the statistical advantage in the game of Risk (“Probability and Risk“). We also had projects exploring the game Sudoko and Basketball statistics.

Our second place project addressed a subject close to my heart: computer security. This project, Security through Obscurity (Steganography), explored the hiding of information in static images, determining that it was possible to encode information in 9 bits for each pixel (3 each for red, green, and blue) before the image was visually affected. This was another poised 8th grader from Orange County who really knew her stuff.

Our third place project was from a team that explored navigation out of their interest in sailing. These two brothers — one 6th grade, one 8th grade — from San Joaquin County looked at how to determine position: “Creating a Global Positioning System: Determining Latitude and Longitude Based Upon Solar Azimuth and Elevation“. This wasn’t our only navigation project: An honorable mention went to a 7th grader from Santa Cruz County for his project “The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Navigation Device“. This young fellow decompiled the Minecraft game, added in three navigation methods (a compass, a vector, and a quasi-map) and the determined which was the best approach to find a given goal.

Our fourth place project was from an 8th grader from Santa Clara County who explored modeling with a project titled “A Mathematical Analysis of Animal Food Chains in Serengeti National Park, Africa: A Computer Simulation Program“. This young student obtained data from paper, and then analyzed trends (by hand, if I recall) to look at the effects of the growth of different animal populations. This wasn’t our only modeling problem: we had one that looked at sampling methods, and one that looked at the birthday paradox.

A number of projects looked at more traditional geometric and mathematical issues. These included the common topics that address calculation of pi in some way (this year, Buffon’s Needle) or Fibonacci numbers. Geometric was also represented by a project that attempted to find the center of a triangle. Mathematics were representated by projects addressing queuing theory and solution of polynomials.

There were a few projects that defied categorization. One student attempted to develop a project that addressed assignment of homework and keeping track of assignments–it was a good idea and implementation, but didn’t scale well. Another project looked at the impact of cosmic dust; in particular, whether it caused aerodynamic drag. There was a project that used a 600dpi printer and a HeNe laser to produce holograms. There was also a project that attempted to compare web browser speed, but it needed better understanding of what web browsers do and the variables that affect browser speed.

Lastly, there was a project that had us scratching our heads a bit: “By Random Chance or By Design?” This attempted to explore the question of whether something created through intelligent design could be recreated by random chance.  His conclusion was that it was impossible to do so. Guess we’ll have to tell those monkeys to give up on those typewriters.

A few additional observations:

  • We have some really bright kids out there. I just talked about our panel, but go to the website and peruse all the panels. You’ll see some remarkable projects out there.
  • Whatever happened to real programming languages (also know as “And those programming languages kids uses these days, they’re just …”). I saw kids programming in Java, Javascript, Python, PHP, and other web-interpreted languages. What happened to C or other traditional programming languages and the more traditional programming model.
  • If you’re going to do a science project, investigate and do something novel. It is much harder to be successful if you are doing simple things (tic-tac-toe, pi, well-known number theory). Do something hard or novel, and know it down pat. Know how to present and be comfortable presenting it. If you look at our top placers, this is what was common: they did something novel, they knew it well, and they knew how to talk about it like they knew it, without going over the head of the judges.

I really enjoy doing things like this. Whether it was the recent ethics competition or the science fair: judging events like this is a way to give back to the community. I encourage all of you to do something like this: give back, and help our emerging science students. Lord knows the state isn’t helping.

Music: Memories (Barbra Streisand): New York State of Mind