I Have a Master’s Degree… In Science (oh, and a CISSP)

Today was that day when, once a year, I again am blown away by the talent of this state’s youth. Yes, today I was a State Science Fair judge. You can be one too, if (a) you meet the qualifications, and (b) can be down in Los Angeles for one day in late May.

Anyway, today I was panel chair for the Junior Math and Software panel, and then later was our representative for Project of the Year. Our panel (J16) was pretty good (hey, they’ve already updated it with the awards!). The winner was a 6th grader from Folsom with a project on Sudoku Patterns, where he basically developed an empirical pattern matching approach to make the puzzle easy to solve for non-mathematicians. Second place (and one of my personal favorites) was a 7th grade project from San Juan Capistrano on Human Interfaces. This kid (who was super enthusiastic) modified an HDTV with lasers in the corners and a camera inside to do screen touch capture, and then integrated a number of software packages to interface it to his Apple laptop. 3rd place was a 7th grader from Santa Cruz with a project on Hash Tables and Collision Resolution Algorithms, where he looked into three resolution algorithms and developed a program to assess their effectiveness. Fourth place was a 7th grader from Woodside with a project on Fractals, where (on her own) she came up with the summation sequences for the area.

After we awarded our category prizes, we walked around to look at the project of the year candidates in the Junior division. Mind you, these are 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

The winner of POY was a Junior Applied Mechanics project from an 8th grader from Saratoga with a project that built a gyroscope out of a used hard disk drive, putting it on a prototype floating vessel with feedback to a stepper motor that adusted stabilizer fins, reducing vessel rolls by ~90%. Another interesting project was a Junior Chemistry project from an 8th grader from Folsom that analyzed chemical reactions of decontamination using spectroscopy to determine kinetic parameters. The spectroscopy was done using a Colorimeter, which the student built out of Lego mindstorm, is designed and programmed to take measurements near the dye’s wavelength of maximum absorbance. This student also derived all the equations to support his conclusion, including full blown calculus equations with derivatives.

Another interesting project, which might hit home for those folks living near Santa Cruz, was done in Junior Environmental Science by two 7th graders from Los Gatos. They noticed the green around their faucets, and wondered if there was a connection with the water and health problems their parents had. They tested well/spring water and tap water from 50 houses in the Santa Cruz Mountains for copper, pH, alkalinity, total dissolve solids, and temperature and had owners complete a water system survey, and uncovered highly acidic water that was leaching copper from the pipes. They also devised solutions to the problem, and (I believe) are presenting them to the county.

I also liked the project in Junior Human Biology from a 6th grader in Auburn. A juvenile diabetic, he wanted to determine was which Fast Acting Insulin, Novolog or Humalog, affect’s a Type 1 Juvenile Diabetic’s blood sugar the best. He experimented with his own blood suger, and determined that the generic, Humalog, was not only less expensive but was the better product.

Those were just some of the projects I liked. I urge you to look through the project listings, both Senior and Junior division. You’ll be mightily impressed.


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:

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The Care and Handling of Science Fair Projects

Last month, nsshere got her science fair project into the Los Angeles County Science Fair. Her project, titled “Dyeing Fabric and the Effect of Threadcount”, was in the Junior Product Science division. Alas, she was disappointed because she wasn’t called back for an interview (meaning her project wasn’t going to the State Fair), and was doubly disappointed in that there were no judges comments on the project. She went from being on a high about science to having a very negative experience. We did contact the judging chair to find out where her comments were, and he indicated he would look into finding the judging sheet.

Last night, gf_guruilla got the answer. There were no judges comments because the judges were running behind on time during the judging, and thus didn’t prepare a comment sheet. There were 5 projects where the judges knew they weren’t going to have interviews, but lack of time prevented them from giving comments. They focused their time on the call-backs.

Now, I’m a judge at the state fair (you can be too). At our level it is emphasized that this should be a positive experience for the kids. It is emphasized how we must see all the projects, and attempt to have an equal number see all projects. We don’t do judging sheets, but we interview and talk to every kid in our category. I find it poor form that the County judges couldn’t provide feedback, either verbal or written, to all participants.

I do intend to bring this up to the directors of judging at the state level. This reflects badly on the entire enterprise.


A Day at the Fair, Science

[Yeah. No headache (so far) today!]

Today I took a day off from work (well, so to speak–I’ll work from home after I finish this post) to be a judge at this year’s California State Science Fair. For those of you with your degrees who are in industry or academia, this is a great thing to do, and I highly encourage your participation. There is just an undescribable charge being around these talented and bright young people.

I’m one of the judges for the Jr. Math and Software panel (we had 8), and it is quite a mixed bag. This year, we had a lot of entries related to random numbers. In previous years, we’ve had lots of theoretical mathematics, or heavy software emphsis. Every year it is different.

Now that judging is over, let me tell you about a few of the projects, and how the judging went. Along the way, I’ll give some advice to potential folks. I’m keeping this post friends only until this evening, when the official announcements are made.

The oddest project going in was J1301, “Chance or Design”. After all, how often do you get a project with the words “In conclusion, evolution tested to be mathematically improbable.” I could see what the student was trying to do, and in some ways he had things right in a purely mathematic point of view (he was attempting to draw a specific 20 character sequences from a set of 20 Scrabble tiles). However, there was some fundamental science that he missed: there would be a great frequency of proteins, there would be protein affinity, other factors (such a temprature, pressure, etc.) would influence selection, and so on. Still, it was interesting talking to him.

The winning project was not what I expected going in. Project J1307, “If Robert E. Lee Had a PC: Cracking the Vigenere Cipher”, looked into key length and the difficulty of breaking a civil war cipher. The kid knew his stuff pretty well, having also done an English paper on the German Enigma cipher, and knowing who I meant when I referred to “Alice and Bob“. He didn’t quite see the difficulty of distributing symmetric key (nor understand an approach to doing so), but give him time.

Second place was the project that I thought on first reading would be first. J1319 “To Find a Generalized Equation to Determine a Stock’s Optimal Trailing Stop Loss using Linear Regression”. This fellows dad is a computer engineer who dabbles in stocks; he suggested the idea to his 7th grade son, who ran with it. The formula he developed has some practical problems (it doesn’t reinvest), but still, such financial acuity in a 7th grader is pretty good.

Third place was project J1318 “There and Back Again: A Point’s Tale: The Planar Isometries of a Regular Polygon”. This student was also at last year’s contest, and built upon her previous work looking into rotation of polygons. She knew potential applications of the work (computer graphics), but didn’t make the connection of group theory to Rubik’s Cube.

Fourth place was project J1315, “Can a Robot Balance on Two Wheels?”. This was a bit more robotics than math, but was an example of an 8th grader building a classic robot control problem solution, and coming up with equations.

Honorable mentions went to J1309 “Pseudo-Random Numbers” who looked at a property of a number of pseudo-random number generators, including programming the generators in both Visual Basic and C++, with a nice interface, understanding of efficiency of algorithms, as well as the different ways different algorithms are put to use in the real world. The other honorable mention was J1320 “A Mathematical Proof of a Relationship between Fibonacci and Lucas Numbers”, which looked at both Fibonacci numbers and Lucas Numbers. We all know Fibonacci numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc, where number nm = nm-2 + nm-1, starting with 0 and 1. Lucas numbers are the same sequence, starting with 2 and 1. This 7th grader did a complicated proof, although I wish he had generalized to the relationship with F(a,b), where a and b are the starting numbers (i.e., normal Fibonacci numbers are F(0,1), and Lucas is F(2,1)).

So, suppose your kid is going to a science fair? What’s the advice from ‘dis Judge?

  • Know the concepts behind your math. For example, if you’re doing a project where you talk about a logarithmic ratio, understand the concept of logarithms? I really should have brought my slide rule for this kid. I had a similar problem with the kid doing password complexity, who didn’t understand permutations and the effects of alphabet size on a password.
  • Know grade appropriate math. We had one project where a kid was working with LEDs to generate colors. He thought there might be around 10,000 different colors possible with the 3 LEDs. I got him to admit that each LED had 256 different states intensities, and asked him how many colors were possible, expecting at least an answer of 224. I expected this because I knew that my daughter learned about exponents this year, and he should be able to calculate 28x28x28. He had no idea.
  • Know the potential applications of your project. We had a project on sound sampling and distortion: at what point does the sample become unlistenable. I was hoping they could make the connection between analog music, the sampling of a CD, and the sampling/compression that goes into their iPod. She couldn’t.
  • Consider all the variables. We had a student who attempted to apply the Monty Hall Problem to Deal or No Deal. The problem was she defined winning wrong (she had it as getting >$1000, when winning is actually ending up going home with as much money possible given what was in your case. She also didn’t take into account which offer one stopped at.
  • Come up with something innovative. Certain topics are golden oldies: rolling dice, shuffing cards, common number sequences. If you’re going to do this, come up with an interesting twist.
  • Go for what interests you, but make sure you get the science right. We had a gamer who did a study on whether the Xbox or PS/2 loaded games faster. The focus was on the initial load times, but didn’t capture all the factors in the load… and neglected the fact that the more significant loading time is the between level load. Some other “personal interest” projects were better, such as the one that looked into the iPod shuffling algorithm.
  • ETA: Slow down, and accept deviations from your presentation. People hear you clearer when you talk slower; too many of the kids talked too fast. Those of you who give presentations know what I mean. Secondly, beware the Inflatable Bozo Syndrome. You shouldn’t be like one of those inflatable clowns that goes back to where it was after you hit it. These kids had memorized their speeches so well you would ask them a question, they would answer it, and then pick up the speech from the word they left off. The judges can read your board and may be familiar with your material. Let us ask questions to see what you know.

Still, these were all 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students, and I think they did themselves proud. Take a look through all the projects. It really does restore confidence in our kids today. I wish all the kids on our panel, even the ones that didn’t win, the best of luck and know they will go far.



It’s been a long day.

The day started with the California State Science Fair. I was there just before 7:00am. After judges orientation, judging was from 8:30am-10:30am, and then 11:00am to 12:30pm. We had 10 judges, and 25 projects. Each project needed to be seen by at least 5 judges, most were seen at all. What won? Divisibility Discovery: A New Divisibility Rule by Casey Fu from Alta Sierra Intermediate School, Clovis. Second place was Searching for Perfection: Utilizing Patterns to Calculate Perfect Numbers. Third was Cycling Antibiotics to Control Antimicrobial Resistance: A Mathematical Model. Honorable Mention was Packing Ellipses into a Hexagon: Does Varying the Ratio of the Two Axes of an Ellipse Affect Packing?. I should note that 2nd and 3rd both came from the same school: Pacific Collegiate School, Santa Cruz.

I had planned to spend the afternoon wandering the Natural History Museum. However, gf_guruilla was sick… so I came home to pick up my daughter for the last day of Hebrew school, and to bring the supplies for the school party. This I did, with only a few minor incidents (I got knocked over by a teacher while unloading a cart, and fell into the rock garden while reaching over to get some papers that had fallen out of a basket. The party had a rock band, so this made for an interesting afternoon. Of course, I was one of two parents that actually stayed behind to help folks clean up.

When I got home around 7pm, I then ran out to Circuit City to pick up two hardwired phones (I prefer them to cordless) and a boom box for my daughter.

So… it has been a long day. Tomorrow should be interesting: I’m going on the van into work. When mommyathome‘s mom (my stepmother) arrives back from Israel, I’ll pick her up and bring her to work for lunch. My wife will drive down to meet us, and she’ll bring her back home to Mission Viejo. There is a plus to all of this: my stepmother just sold her house and will be downsizing… and so she needs the boxes that have been waiting bundled in our garages for her move.

So now to go veg for a bit…


It’s Friday. Woo-Hoo

This has been an incredibly busy week. Other than my shoulder still bothering me, I’ve been going like gangbusters. So what’s going on:

  • I’ve just completed the process of bringing all my journal entries into the tag space. Next is refining the tag space.
  • Wednesday night we had our first Bar/Bat Mitzvah parent’s round robin. ’twas quite interesting, although I was a bit of a show-off due to my knowledge from the FAQ. I do like Rabbi Jim’s approach to having the kids to a lot of the service and coming out feeling good. He recommended that we all see the movie Keeping Up With The Steins. Luckily, we’ve got a head start on the Mitzvah Project… it looks like NSS&F will be helping our good friend Jolie revamp the webpage for, and work with, the Los Angeles Radio Reading Service.
  • Last night, I did some more rearranging in the garage. We’re getting closer to being unpacked. We only moved… almost a year ago!
  • This Saturday I’m going to the No Ho Arts Festival, a two-day festival of theatre and the arts in North Hollywood. Hopefully the weather will hold up for this. It should be fun, but I’ll be going by my lonesome: ‘da wife and kid will be at the CDF Annual Conference and Food Faire, ellipticcurve will be gaming, and venedotia will be working. Is anyone reading this going to NoHo on Saturday? Perhaps we could meet.
  • I’ve been having a bunch of fun communicating with some family members back east whom I’ve never met (Weinbaum branch), who might be coordinating a family reunion in the Nashville area sometime next year. See what happens when you put your family tree online.
  • Early next week is the California State Science Fair at USC. Monday afternoon I’ll be taking NSS&F to view all the projects–she’ll then write a report for her teacher on what she saw. Tuesday I’ll be a judge and panel chair for the Jr. Division Math and Software Panel. I’ve already looked through the projects a few times: there are some that are quite good, some that I’ve got good questions for, and some that I just don’t quite understand (J1218…and this is her 4th year on the same related subject [2005, 2004, 2003]… she started in 5th grade). I’m always amazed, reading the project summaries, that these are 6th – 8th graders (Jr. Division). The projects are just amazing.
  • I’ll likely be doing my Stash Tea Order over the weekend. If you’re local and want to jump into the order, let me know and we’ll see what can be done.