[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.