On Wednesday, I volunteered as a judge for the Greater San Diego Science & Engineering Fair. They had too many math and CS judges, so I was put in Engineering – Electrical and Mechanical, middle school division.
There were two really impressive projects. One student studied the effect of EM radiation on wavelength division multiplexing in fiber optics. I questioned him about WDM and he seemed to understand the concept pretty well (he gave good analogies for multiplexing and wavelength division). He was a bit shaky on error correction, and he didn’t actually do a physical experiment. but he did learn how to run simulate the system using software, including learning the language used to describe the system(!). Truly impressive for a middle schooler.
Another student tried to build a hearing aid for listening to violin. Okay, really it was an amplifier/filter circuit. And her mentor (who does speech, I believe) pointed her toward a bandpass filter designer that was more concerned about magnitude response than phase response. But she breadboarded her circuit, including an op amp (how many op amps did we fry in college?) and tested her circuit by seeing how it affected various perceptual qualities. Of course, loudness was best. The student and her project would gain a lot from talking to a sound engineer.
Then there were all the projects that students did because their teachers made them. I’ll say this: I’m not very impressed with the award system the fair uses. Every entry gets either 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th place. There is no way to not get a prize. My group handed out roughly a third 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. An uninspired project that performs an experiment (we saw several) gets 3rd.
Finally, one interesting observation: I asked a lot of the students, “Did anything in your project raise more questions / make you want to look deeper into an aspect?” I believe if you asked a grad student, they will invariably have something that bugs them or something that interest them or something that must be answered. All of the students said no. From the stellar projects down to the generic projects. It’s like admitting you still have questions is a form of weakness rather than admitting you have a curious mind.