SCIENCE AND THE CITY ------------------ John Pazmino NYSkies Astronomy Inc firstname.lastname@example.org www.nyskies.org 2004 February 9
Introduction ---------- I was nailed to be a judge a the 2004 New York City Science and Engineering Fair at City College, after my baptism last year. You may want to read my account posted into NYSkies under 'Science at City College' on 2003 February 22. In November 2003 I received notice from the Science Fair office reminding me of the upcoming fair and asking that I be a judge. No problem. I signed the confirmation card and mailed it back right away. Like for last year, the Fair office was impressed with NYSkies. They learned more about it from their check of my 'qualifications' and, now newly, seeing postings passed on by colleagues. Hey! It's YOU, my readers and writers, who make NYSkies so important and influential an astronomy service in the City!! Steve Kaye, a longtime friend and high school Earth science teacher, called me in late January to see if I in fact was judging this year. I could have waved off the Fair's invite. All was ready. From convos with the Fair office and Mr Kaye since the invite, I learned that this year's show was a record breaking 1,100 students in quote 1,000 exhibits. Some exhibits were crewed by two or three students, while the overwhelming majority were cared for by a lone student. The number of judges was not quite as huge as last year, only 450ish. I received a judge's pack of papers in late January. The papers told me to show up at City College's faculty dining hall at 11:00 on Sunday 8 February 2004. The kit was substantially thinner than last year's, lacking the descriptions of the project categories and judging criteria. However, I had my papers from the 2003 running to prepares from.
The ride to City College ---------------------- I called Mr Kaye on Saturday night. I only a couple hours earlier arrived home from the Observing Group meeting on Manhattan, after giving the feature presentation there on the five-planet parade coming in March 2004. I was a bit and a mite fatigued. I went to bed right after ringing off with Steve. We would go together early in the morning. More over, I can help with his science students to set up their exhibits in Great Hall. We arranged to convene at Kings Highway station on the BMT Brighton Beach line at 08:30. Steve noted that he already gathered construction supplies like tape and scissors, so I didn't have to load up with these like last year. I trotted off of the train at Kings Highway at 08:15. The day was chilly and partly sunny, about seasonal. My lighter winter jacket was sufficient. I didn't need the gloves I had in my pocket or my knit hat while out of the wind. No Steve, but I saw high school students milling around in the forecourt. Mr Kaye arrived quite on time from the street; he took a bus from his house to the station. Over the next ten or fifteen minutes other students arrived both by train and by street. They bantered about their science work and seeing that they had all the stuff for their display. Steve made several cell calls. with a cell phone borrowed from a student, to rustle up latecomers. When every one was accounted for, we piled into an uptown train for the City. The route was a bit wrinkled from the one Steve and I took to school eons ago due to accumulated changes in services. The Brighton train no longer runs to upper Manhattan. We changed to a 6th Avenue train at Herald Sq to continue the trip. We arrived at 145th St, IND 8th Avenue line. in quick time. I relived the cannonball effect under Central Park West. This should be the last time for such a dissected route. On February 22nd, tracks on Manhattan Bridge are knitted back together to allow running Brighton trains to upper Manhattan, and on to the Bronx.
Mr Kaye's kids ------------ They're high school students, OK? The better ones, yes, for being in the Fair, but adolescents none the less. I -- and Kaye -- were drenched in all the silliness such folk can emit on a long train ride. I mentioned cell phones above. Many students today have them. As odious as they can be in the hands of grownups, for the high schoolers they are just personal accessories, the way my generation treated the calculettes. Some of the kids had handheld computers (what's a calculette?) which they pecked at to show their school or science fair work. One chap had a high-end Palm machine that included a digicam, planetarium program, and certain voice phone features. He and I were chatting away about astronomy and taking turns snapping pictures with the gadget. I brang my own Kodak digicam, it being so small and light that I carry in my shoulder bag all the time. I took a few pictures, too. Palm-bloke asked what storage chip does my camera use. It turned out that his Palm and my Kodak use the same chip, but i cautioned that the formating may be entirely different. Since i was going to email my pictures to Steve (actually to one of the kids, being that Steve doesn't use email) we risked putting my chip in his computer. Lo! It fired up and all my pictures flipped down onto his screen. I let him copy off the images so he can pass them around at school on Monday. That saved me the email chore.
City College of New York ---------------------- The Fair convened in Great Hall of City College. I was last here quite a full year ago, the occasion being the Fair then. In my school days, the campus was rather much a junk heap, with graffiti and political posters all over the walls. The rooms were trashy, decayed, dirty. The cafeteria food was plain lousy. And the campus overlooked the riots and unrest in Harlem. Hamilton Heights around City College is much cleaner and more upscale than my sight of it in the 1970s. Bishopcrooks lined the streets, replacing the cobraheads newly installed when I was at the school! Alexander Hamilton's house is restored. Kaye noted that the National Park Service wants to move this house into St Nicholas Park, adjoining City College, to simulate its original setting of the 1700s. On the campus, restoration is moving along. The buildings on the west side of Convent Avenue and the quadrangle (a tiny vest-pocket park) are in partial service. Only the original suite of structures will eventually be brought back to their classical state. New halls, of a melange of styles and sizes, will be just refurbished and repaired as they stand. This scheme is a sea change from the works at Brooklyn College. There the entire 'new' or 'back' part of the campus is under demolition, to be replaced by a campus resembling the core set of halls from the early 20th century. The awesome sight for me, no less so than last year, was how beautiful Great Hall is! All the windows were cleaned and repaired. They were filthy and patched with crude boards in my days. The flags did look original with no obvious renewal. The floor was new marble; the columns were dressed smooth, chandeliers working, woodwork freshly detailed. Steve noted that Great Hall is rented out for large concerts and lectures from time to time. There are no routine student events in it.
Preparing the exhibits -------------------- The first stop, it then being 10:10, was Great Hall, the cathedral-like central salon of Shepard Hall. Kaye had to get his displays in order and to make last minute repairs. They were open for the public from 10:00 (not 12:00 as NYC Events noted). Happily, few repairs, and surprisingly little assistance, was needed to set up the posters. The kids practiced the procedure in Steve's school. I walked around to absorb the general activity. Great Hall was fitted with rows and rows of lunch tables, marked off in meter-long zones for the displays. Each spot had a letter- number coordinate, which each student had in his own papers from the Fair. Each spot on the tables had a coordinate by rank and tier. The big improvement from last year was that the aisles were a ha'meter wider by spreading the tables farther apart. There was ample room to pass visitors and judges at the exhibits. But now there were fewer tables fit into Great Hall. The overflow was housed in several classrooms in the corridors sweeping outward from Great Hall. The students first mustered up at tables according as the project serial number assigned to them. This was part of their own Fair papers. The clerk gave the student the coordinate in Great Hall or one or an overflow classroom for the exhibit. It seemed to me that there was greater disorder for the students. Mr Kaye's flock had no trouble, being that he briefed them on the situation and accompanied them to the Fair. Students who came alone or with unprepared teachers were lost. Finding the proper spot among the tables was tough, given the crowds and noise and lack of helpful ushers! Kaye in a couple cases personally handwalked a student to the designated space.
The student exhibit ----------------- In this Fair the student must exhibit posters for his project and, optionally, have litterature about the project to give to the public (but not to the judges). The posters for Mr Kaye's flock were done on foamboard. Others I saw around the Hall were on cardboard and, well, posterboard. The typical display was a tritabular, a wide center panel and flanking narrower panels angled forward.. No apparatus or specimina or tools are allowed in the exhibit; the poster can have pictures or drawings or graphics of them. Each exhibit was assigned by the Fair to a category, the ones for me to judge being, as I learned a bit later, 'Earth and space science'. The displays for Steve's students were rather handsome, well lettered, easy to understand, and neatly executed. Kaye critiqued them in his school before letting them come to the Fair. He also staged mock judging sessions in a classroom. Older students played the judges and the students went thru their skit as Kaye watched. There was a heavy showing of overseas exhibitors: Middle East, Orient, India, Latin America, Russia, Africa. Some wore native accessories in their clothing or had deep speech accents of their native lands. Their displays on the whole looked every bit as worthy as any 'American' one.
Judge's reception --------------- With all of Steve's kids ready to rumble, we left Shepard Hall by Lincoln Hall, under Great Hall. This, too, is restored with new lighting and decorated with several gargoyles from the roof of Shepard Hall. These were too damaged to safely put back on the roof. Replicas are up there now. Yes, I rubbed the nose on Abe Lincoln's statue for good luck. One fixture removed was the world's largest men's room, in the basement of Shepard Hall. I do mean largest. The restroom was something like 20 meters long by 10 wide and had, no kidding, about 200 urinals arranged in soldier-like rows. It was originally the only restroom on the campus when constructed, remembering that City College was only for men back then. Kaye and I skipped across Convent Avenue to a new facility, replacing the old athletic stadium, where the faculty dining hall is. We were steered onto a queue of other judges to present our papers. From last year and general dealings with Steve, I handed over only the necessary items and got my clipboard, instructions, and scoring sheets. We were assigned to different teams, mine being for 'Earth and space science'. I was on a team of three other strangers, among whom introductions and handshakes were duly exchanged. We were a engineer, a computerist, me the engineer/astronomer, and one no-show. We let the engineer be the chair of our team. The Fair, probably to complete the set of four, handed us a fourth judge, but I forget his calling. First things first. It was now 11:20 and we both left our houses at around 07:30. Our tummies needed grub! We hurried to the sumptuous buffet breakfast set out for the judges. WE could pick hot and cold food, many drinks, and go back for seconds. We heard a welcome address by the head of the Science Fair, president of City College, an official from the City's new Department of Education, maybe some one else. Now came an other major change from last year. There were no real instructions! In fact, this threw a monkey wrench in my well-oiled confidence 'coz this time my team was judging 'proposals' in addition to 'projects'. Each of us got a list of the displays to judge, five proposals and five projects. The scoring sheet for the projects looked like last year's so I put it on the clipboard and filled in the project serial numbers, from the list, over the column tops. That's when the chair pointed out that I mistakenly included the proposals. There's was an other, allnew, scoring sheet for them! Unlike the project sheet, which can take scores for up to ten displays in spread sheet layout, the proposal score has one sheet per display. Five proposals, five score sheets. And it offered detailed criteria to inspect the exhibit for and then apply to each both a score and a comment choice. Hmmm, OK.
The judging team -------------- The routine seems simple enough. We go to each display on our list as a unit. For five minutes we silently scrutinize the posters. In the next five minutes we let the student go thru his spiel about the project. Then we allow five minutes to interrogate the student. A final five minutes is allowed to score the project and move on to the next one. For the ten projects, at twenty minutes each, we had OVER THREE HOURS of work ahead of us! With all the preliminaries done, we got from the front desk of the reception hall the correlation sheet for the table coordinates and project serial numbers. With this in hand, the team chair plowed a path thru the hordes back to Great Hall. Kaye and I waved and agreed to meet in the corridor in back of Great Hall after the judging. The segregation of coord and serial numbers is apparently to prevent jumping a judging, like by seeing the display during the setup or public viewing, before the official start of judging.
Congestion in Great Hall ------------------- Remember that there were some 1,000 exhibits (less a few no-shows) and some 450 judges, crushed into a Great Hall dissected into thin channels by the lunch tables. Walking was cautious, yes, but far looser than last year. We could stand back to back against judges opposite us and pass smoothly around visitors in the aisles. Crosstalk, on the other hand, was just as severe from adjacent or opposite exhibits, making for strained listening. On several instances we had to ask the student to repeat or speak up. Marking the score sheets was much more tame! There always was room to stand out of traffic and to hold the board without it getting slapped in my face. The lighting was erratic, yet by turning one way or an other I could get enough light to read and write with. I asked the chair to announce the next display by coordinate so if we broke apart we would go and assemble at that exhibit anyway. The loud speakers did intermittently call out for a this or that team to fetch a wayward member. He liked and straight away took up the idea. We went from the one exhibit to the next, amazingly staying as a unit for the whole time. We did take a potty break about halfway thru the exhibits, but otherwise, we were in sight and sound of each other. One great facilitation is that this year the exhibits were arranged on the floor by categories. All of our displays were in one part of Great Hall, eliminating the crazed hunt from the one to the next that hindered our inspections last year. It was mild and comfortable. I tied my coat by its sleeves around my waist as a skirt, as I commonly did in my college days. Others of my team carried or wore their coats with no obvious discomfort.
Inspecting the exhibits --------------------- At each exhibit we first looked for general compliance with the contest rules. No name of the student or school, title matches that on the project list, no human or vertebrate specimina, no illegal materials, full set of required features on the posters, and a dozen other points. We also looked for ease of reading; relevant pictures, graphs, charts, text; clear statement of project, methodology, studies, conclusions. We examined first the exhibits in the overflow classrooms, then those in Great Hall. I figure that one reason for the looser crowds in Great Hall was that they actually thinned out a bit by the time we got there. After a student is judged, and gets the official sticker from the chair of the judging team, he can break down his display. After an hour or so in the overflow rooms, we likely entered a Great Hall already emptied of an hour's worth of judged exhibits. During the student verbal presentation we listened for general comprehension of the exhibit, absence of canned script, use of the poster to highlight the speech, logical flow of thought. Several exhibits were group efforts, with up to three students in the crew. We let the group divvy up the spiel as it liked. The Q&A went well. I and the other judges asked solid questions, to learn from the exhibit or seek extension beyond it. After we finished at a project, the chair put a 'judged' tag on it. At this moment the student may dissemble the display and go home. This breakdown of exhibits didn't impede traffic so badly as last year. Oh, sure, posters flopped about, kids massed up at the tables, floors occupied for wrapping the display. But the wider aisles allowed passage around the exhibits, with appropriate caution.
Proposals and projects -------------------- The Fair distinguishes several categories of exhibit. Last year all of mine to inspect were 'projects', what you would think of as a 'science fair project'. The student DOES something, displays the goal and purpose, the collected data, the results and conclusions. The method for assaying this category was the same as last year, I worked thru the inspection of the five projects for my team with some dexterity. A proposal is a far looser display to judge. The student does NOT actually do any real work. In the place he does a consideration of some topic with the intent to later make a project of it. We in essence had to assess an idea more than action! Since we had no explanation of the judging methods in the reception hall, and I never inspected proposals, I got all goofed up in scoring the first display. The score sheet had 23 features to assign a numerical score to and 23 comment choices to declare! And do this in five minutes!! I concocted a slimmed down scoring by lumping together several features into one score and skipping the comment selections.
Individual exhibits ----------------- I can not particularize about specific exhibits because the judging is anonymous and the Fair continues in March to a second round at Brooklyn Polytechnic University. I can say that for me both the best ones of the lot were astronomy themes and the worst were those about geology. The lousiest display was for chemistry; it presented a wrong result from a simple experiment.
Finishing up ---------- After 3-1/2 hours, by 15:00, we returned to the faculty dining hall to tote up our scores. The time for judging extended to 16:00 and there were still lots of teams roving thru Great Hall when we left/ Each of us scored separately and independently for each display. Now we combined the scores. This was nothing nut simple arithmetic, for which the chair deployed his calculette. As the numbers fell out, my assessment of the displays was in line with that of the other judges, so I guess I did right by the students. The judging got the better of us and the Fair office knew it. It had for us a buffet lunch! I took my time for lunch, filling up with seconds. I was noshing my way thru some pasteries when Steve Kaye ambled by from his team's table. We turned in our clipboards in exchange for a thank-you present, a large coffee mug. Steve Kaye instructed his kids to gather after the judging in the corridor behind Great Hall so we all go home in one group. We met up with his students, all front and center, ready to go home with their packed up displays.. The ride home on the IND and BMT was relaxing; we got seats despite the full load of riders! We reviewed the day, with Mr Kaye advising his kids how to improve the exhibits for Brooklyn if they were winners today. Due to a peculiar reroute, we did not see sky again until our train was deep in Brooklyn. By then night was falling over the City. The kids got their cap-off treat of the day: Venus in the deepening twilight viewed from the train window.