John Pazmino
 NYSkies Astronomy Inc
2017 March 9

    I with Steve Kaye did our civic duty as judges on 2017 March 5 for 
the New York City Science and Engineering Fair. Last year I missed the 
fair because I ws recovering from car accident. I was hit by a car 
turning into my crosswalk while on my way to work on February 22nd. 
The incident fractured by left hip and left elbow, requiring surgery 
and rehabilitation. 
    This year, with a year of regaining full function of both hip and 
elbow, Kaye and I arranged to meet his students at the Kings Highway 
station on the Brighton line at 7AM EST. We spoke about the Fair at 
the NYSkies Astronomy Seminar on Friday 3 March, along with thoughts 
of observing the occultation of Aldebaran in late night of March 4th. 

Madison and the yeshiva 
    Mr Kaye finished a teaching career at James madison High School 
when in mid 2015 he retired. In his last couple years he also did 
science teaching at a yeshiva for Syrian Jews, one or two classes per 
    Since retiring from Madison, on a municipal pension and preserved 
health coverage, he gradually filled his 'free' time with more classes 
at the yeshiva. He now teaches there just about full time. 
    His three science fair contestants were from the yeshiva, none 
from Madison. Steve doesn't know if any one took up his science 
resource ole at Madison or if any Madison students are in this year's 
    In general the science fair, and almost all other achievement 
events. are miserably promoted in the City's schools. Usually they are 
noted to the students by a particular teacher, not the chair of the 
science department or the principal. Then, there is little school 
support or help for the contestant because the school has poor 
facilities and no external interaction with science companies and 
    The yeshiva has no true science mission but does provide time and 
rooms for the contestants to work and refers the students to outside 
resources. Even here this year,for the 2016 Intel competition, the 
yeshiva fielded no contestants. 

Behind the Moon
    This occultation of Aldebaran was a special event for the City. In 
city the star was covered near the north cusp of the Moon for about 20 
minutes. Some 150 kilometers north, at the fringe of NYSkies 
territory, the star skimmed across the lunar north limb in a grazing 
path. It blinked in and out of view behind the mountains standing in 
profile along the limb. 
    No one at the Seminar had plans to view this graze, but to stay at 
home and see the brief full occultation. I, too, watched from home.
    The air was, uh, cold and windy. I viewed from an open window that 
faced the Moon. I wore a wool bathroom in reverse, tying it from the 
back, to put a solid barrier on my chest against the frigid air.
    With a Questar field model on tripod i saw Aldebaran snuff out in 
mid air on the Moon's dark edge, which i could ot see at all. I then 
closed the window to warm up and waited about twenty minutes for the 
star to emerge from the bright edge. I examined the Moon for a moment 
thru the closed window but the image was too wrinkled for good view. 
    Tree branches waved in front of the Moon for the whole event and i 
suspect one blocked momentarily the star when it came out from the 
Moon.  I opened the window again for the emersion, to be blasted by 
cold wind. I missed the actual egress, first seeing Aldebaran when it 
was a little ways away from the Moon. 
    For New York the occultation occurred in the 23h block of march 
4th, the night before the Fair. most timetables for the event were 
issued in Greenwich Mean Time, five hours ahead of the City. Some 
american authors did count off the GMT times to EST but forgot that 
they back-crossed over midnight between march 4 and5. They did not 
notch back the date, sending out notices to watch in late night of 
march 5th! NYSkies astronomers were not fooled by this goof but I 
can't say yet if others else where were.

Meeting at Kings Highway
    By chance this station is close to both the yeshiva and Madison 
HS.Steve told his yeshiva contestants to meet there, happily 
continuing a routine he developed long ago for his Madison students. 
    I immediately after the occultation folded up my scope and went to 
sleep. I had to get up at 5 o'clock, with only five hours of rest, if 
not full sleep, to get to the station. My sister left a jug of coffee 
and a bagel for my breakfast. I skipped these , bundled up, stepped 
outside into the cold air.  
     The air was frigid, some -10C, with a stiff breeze. Luckily my 
bus from home arrived in a few minutes to bring me to th Brighton 
line, where I boarded the train to Kings Highway. 
    I arrived quite at 7AM EST. Steve came along a couple minutes 
later, all bundled up against the cold. He, too, got little sleep 
during the night. Not from watching the occultation, from working with 
one student to finish the project backboards and rehearse his 
    This time, all of his students, three for this year, also arrived 
quickly with no frantic phone calls and risk of getting on our way 
The ride to City College
    The Fair was staged at City College, being that the College is a 
major partner and does much of the Fair's administrative functions.
    The uptown Brighton train came quickly. On an early Sunday morning 
trains run about every 8 to 10 minutes. While traffic at Kings Highway 
and outer reach of the Brighton line is light, the trains fill up as 
they pass thru Downtown Brooklyn. When they cross over Manhattan 
Bridge to Manhattan the train filled with standing riders. 
    The Brighton trains do not go to City College, in Hamilton Hts MH. 
They in January 2017 were extended into the new 2nd Avenue subway but 
only to 96th on the Upper East Side. To get to Hamilton Heights we 
changed trains at 34th St/Herald Sq to a Concourse train. 
    Steve and I sweeped the three kids thru the station to the 
platform for the Concourse train. The train came in a minute or two. 
Skipping down the track 
    In the station loud speaker alerts blared about rerouting certain 
trains due to weekend construction.. I didn't follow all the reroutes 
but it reminded me about the resilience built into the City subway 
grid. In most other towns with rapid transit, a disruption on a given 
line means the line is shut down until the disturbance is cleared. In 
New York, trunk lines have three or four lanes of rail and lots of 
switches. If one track is blocked, trains can be switched to the 
others. Service may be slowed down and routes may be mixed up, nut 
trains can keep running. 
    When our Concourse train approached Columbus Circle station we saw 
construction crews on the express track. Our train would normally 
enter the station on that track to begin an express run uptown. In the 
stead, our train was switched to the local track, avoiding the track 
work, and entered the station. PA notices alerted that this, our, 
train is in fact an express with 125th St as the next stop. 
    Upon leaving the station we switched back to the express track for 
the run to 125th St. 
 Once on our proper track, we speeded to City College. 
    The textbook method of building a subway would have only two 
tracks in the station, uptown and downtown. Our train would either 
wrong-rail on the downtown track, interrupting its service, or short-
end its run some where before Columbus Circle. 

At the College
        We exited at 145th St, the closest stop to the campus and 
herded the students to the Fair. The contestants mustered up in 
Shepard Hall in one hallway and set up their projects in the main 
salon, Great Hall. Kaye let two of the kids rub the nose of an Abraham 
Lincoln statue, near the registration tables.  he explained this was 
for good luck. Both Steve and I were students at City College, about 
eight years apart. For tests, exams, applications,  tryouts we -- and 
all students at the College -- rubbed this nose.  Kaye's third 
student wandered away and missed this ritual. 
    We were earlier at the College from the timely gathering of the 
kids at Kings Highway. We didn't have to rush the students to Great 
Hall. Steve helped get the projects in place at the assigned spots on 
the display tables. He warned the kids that if they step away from the 
display they must take with them their laptops and electronic gadgets. 
This is a general rule that most mentors and teachers tell their kids. 
On rare instances a laptop or other instrument was stolen, ruining the 
the project's ability to compete in the Fair. 

New arrangement of tables
    The traditional lineup of tables, cross-wise in Great Hall, 
parallel to the front stage, was changed this year. The display tables 
were now lined up length-wise from rear to front in the Hall, with 
escape gaps between them. These let people transfer between rows of 
tables without having to walk to the very ends of the row. Steve 
explained that this was the setup for last year, the year I lost the 
Fair from my accident.
    The long rows were lettered from the far left to far right with 
large signs. The signs were placed only on the rear ends of the 
tables, visible as one walked toward the front stage. In the reverse 
direction there were no signs! i myself had to walk to an escape gap 
to see the sign on there rear end of the table and then make my way to 
the target row. 
    On each table the contestant spots were marked with tags for the 
row and sequence within the row. Sometimes these were covered by 
project papers or props. I at times had to count spots from one with  
a visible label. 
    The projects were grouped in the rows by category.  In my own 
case,Earth and Environmental Sciences projects were in rows G, H, and 
The judges breakfast 
    With the projects ready to go, Steve and I hustled across the 
street to the judges's meeting in an awfully-designed building of the 
1980s in the 'destruuctionist' style. To me it looks like a beached 
warship. The floors inside are haphazardly laid out with odd angles 
here and there and disorienting stairs and doors. We bumped along in 
the halls to the judges's sign-in table, got our judging kits. kaye 
and I were assigned to 'Earth and environmental sciences'. When I cut 
papers a couple weeks earlier to be a judge I noted by specialty as 
'earth and planetary sciences' and 'Engineering'. Steve said the name 
of the first theme was changed in 2016 and almost all projects in it 
were environmental with little about Earth and planets. 
    With our kits in hand we bumped along to the breakfast hall. 
    The room was filled with judges, all 360ish of them. They sat at 
tables with tent sings for the project category  Our table for E^ES 
was in a far corner of the room, yet close to the podium for speeches 
and instructions. We had four other judges for company,  who exchanged 
greetings with us. 
    We put our coats on our chairs, then hit the breakfast counter. 
Neither Steve nor I had any breakfast at home and we were pretty 
hungry by now. 
    The food was tasty, filling, ample. Both hot and cold items were 
offered in buffet mode. Seconds were allowed. Most judges at our table 
filled up their plates again. 
    One downer for me was that there were no packaged items, in bags 
or boxes. In some previous  b Fairs I took a couple of these to munch 
on during the judging. All items were loose, unsuitable for wrapping 
in napkins. As it happened I didn't need munchies from the Breakfast. 
In Great Hall a snack table was ready with bags  of chips and bottles 
of water. Soonest Steve and I began our rounds of judging I scooped up 
a few bags. 
Awful turnout 
    The breakfast winding down, the Fair officials started with short 
speeches at the podium and then gave us judging instructions. For his 
year, according to the talks, there were some 590 students from some 
45 high schools in this Fair. While this is a good showing compared to 
science fairs else where, I felt it as a lousy turnout. There are 
about 400 high schools, public and nonpublic, in New York City, with 
several hundred thousand students. The Fair attracted such a low 
interest? Why aren't there a few thousand entries from a few hundred 
schools? Yes, Great Hall would be way to small for such a huge number 
of contestants.  The Fair would have to sit in, perhaps, the Javits 
    General banter during breakfast revealed that in general the 
sciences, with math and technology and engineering, is hardly a major 
part of education in the City. This is not just in the municipal 
schools but also in most nonpublic schools. In fact, the 'core 
curriculum', the federal education regulation put out some eight years 
ago, leaves out traditional sciences and maths. They are replaced by 
case studies and anecdotes and stories about what science and maths 
did to society. 
    Along with the low effort to include these subjects in the diploma 
process, there are far too few capable of carrying out the subjects. 
For one point, experience or training in sciences isn't a main factor 
in hiring and retaining science teachers. 
    Some judges note that their own child's high school didn't know 
about the Fair because it wasn't promoted to the students. The Fair's 
announcements wr either discarded or ignored when they arrived at the 
school. Only if a particular teacher has the interest and motivation 
do the students have a chance to compete in the Fair. 

New category
    The Fair this year fielded a new category of project 'Research and 
development'.  This contains projects from 9th graders who are first-
time Fair contestants. They were chosen from entries that fell short 
of being a full contestant, They were set up in their own block of 
display tables in Great Hall.
    They were not formally graded and none were assigned to us judges 
to inspect. The instruction was that we look at these projects and 
discuss them with the student as we found free time during the 
judging. We should advise the student how to improve the project and 
suggest resources and assistance. As it happened for me I ran out of 
time in my rounds and missed visiting any of these projects. 

    The judging procedure was the same as for my previous duties as a 
judge. The scoring sheet had the criteria laid out with fill-in 
circles, 1-5 or 1-10. We attached a judge's sticker to each project 
scoring sheet, taken from a strip of barcode stickers in our kit. 
    Ushers from the Fair brang sets of project scoring sheets to each 
table. We passed them among us, allotting 5 or 6 different projects 
for each of us.  The plan was to spend 15-20 minutes at each project 
over the two-hour judging period. 
    Each scoring sheet came with an abstract of the project, which we 
could keep or discard after the Fair. In prior years we had to either 
hand back the abstracts or they were not requested when we handed in 
our scoring sheets.
    We were advised that student's own contribution to the project was 
of special importance. In some cases the student was merely an 
assistant who did the work given to him by his mentor, with little 
personal part in running the project. We should engage the student 
with dialog that brings out his participation in the project work.
    We were released back to Shepard Hall when we finished preparing 
the scoring sheets, category-by-category to spread out the flow of 
people out of the breakfast hall. 

In Great Hall
    We hopped across the street to Shepard Hall, put our coats in a 
Fair's coat room, and paraded into Great Hall. Ushers handed us a 
clipboard as a writing surface for scoring the projects. Steve and I 
set out for our projects. First off I spotted the snack table, from 
which I liberated several bags of chips. 
    At the front of Great Hall was a table with a Fair crew to handle 
glitches in project distribution and to assign last-minute projects to 
willing judges.  After perhaps ten minutes this crew left. We judges 
used the table to sit at while marking scoring sheets or take a rest. 
    There were only a couple chairs at this table, left in place when 
the Fair crew finished its tasks. 
    Judges coming to the table to work on their scores almost always 
hunched down over the table, the chairs being already occupied by 
earlier arrivals. They missed seeing that the table was shoved close 
to steps leading up to the front stage! I sat on the steps and worked 
at the table comfortably with no strain. Yet, after being so obvious 
in my action, almost every one else continued to stand and hunch over 
the table! 

    The day was sunny. Daylight poured into the south-facing windows 
of Great Hall. The lamps in the ceiling didn't add any more 
illumination. The south side of the project displays were clear and 
bright.,The north side was often shaded in darkness. I took out my 
pocket torch to light up these displays when I inspected them. Two 
students were surprised I did this because, they said, no other judge 
used a torch. I found the torch  essential to read text and examine 
    The front table, where I worked at between projects, was amply 
lighted from the windows. Even when an occasional cloud covered the 
Sun there was enough light to work with.

    I don't know what rules governed the design ad size of display. 
In some prior years the backboards were quite varied with only the 
width constrained by the spot on the display table. This year almost 
all displays were of about the same one-meter height above the table 
with a tri-panel style. Text and graphics were virtually all computer-
processed, giving many a commercially produced look. Only a few had 
crowns or attachments. 
    Altho I was blessed with clearly written displays I inspected, I 
noticed others with lousy color choice and textured background. 
    For my projects the student had a laptop on the table, closed, but 
did not demonstrate anything to me with it. Other projects were 
heavily relying on laptops for illustration, animation, slideshow.

    I had six projects to judge, all in the category 'Earth and 
environmental sciences'.. All wee good but none was specially the best 
of the set. The abstracts listed the student's school and grade, which 
I leave out here for privacy considerations. 

DEGRADATION AND GROWTH OF PLANTS The student tried assorted crops and 
mulch on patches of backyard to see which protects them from weather. 
Unprotected soil is lost to rain washing and wind blowing. She 
examined the soil patches after several weeks for lost soil. She found 
that tuber mulch and pea corp seemed best to protect soil.

    The student developed a method of measuring the amount of CO2 a 
marsh absorbs and the converted CH4 is releases into the air. she 
collected samples from Piermont marsh, in the mid Hudson valley for 
content of CO2 and CH4. The changing ratio indicated cycles of 
absorption and release of carbon. She found that samples taken where 
phragmites live had the nest absorb-release function.

    The student found a cheap and accurate method of determining the 
bioaccessible content of soil. The standard method from US EPA is too 
expensive for general consumer use. She tried cheap equivalents of the 
EPA'schemistry with HCl and hlycerine. The best match was flyverine 
and 10% HCl, uielding measures almost the same as the EPA chemistry. 
She noted that most soil analyses measure total lead content and not 
just the fraction assimilated by humans. 

    I suspect the last word should be 'technosoil' because there is 
just no word in any jargon as 'technosol'. Technosoil seems to fit the 
project to hand, testing gro2th of seeds in manufactured soil. The 
student obtained soil made from sediments and compost and planted 
carrot seeds i it. The carrots grew normally then after.  The goal was 
to replace contaminated natural soil with a layer of constructed 

    I did not judge two projects because, their students were not to 
hand when I stopped at them. They were




    i explain how these got skipped in the next section. 

 Where's the student? 
    My routine in judging is to bypass a project already engaging with 
a judge. I circle back to it later when it is free. I move the score 
sheet for the skipped project to the bottom of my route and move to 
the next one on top. In this way I duly inspected and scored four of 
my six projects.
    Two projects presented a new situation for me. Each time I came to 
them it was either occupied by a judge or the student was away. This 
is not a no-show because the display was in place and it was inspected 
by some judges. A true no-show is a project that didn't set up at the 
Fair, leaving a vacant spot at its table. 
    For the last half-hour of the judging period I had these last two 
projects to visit. I hoped to be finished with all sic and then see 
some of the new Research and Development projects. The Fair announced 
the end of judging and I never got to see any of them. 
    When I turned in my papers at the Fair office, bear Great Hall, i 
showed them the missing projects... The Fair agent told me not to 
worry. This situation does happen from time to time. As long as the 
project was scored by three judges it's a valid score for the project. 
At the instant there was no way to know if my two project met this 
test because scoring sheets were still coming into this office. 

After the Fair
    On and off during the judging Steve and I crossed paths. After an 
hour or so we missed seeing each other. Then after I went thru the 
mustering out myself. When I handed in my scoring sheets I got the 
thank-ou gift but no lunch voucher. There was no tickets for the 
lunchroom this year. The fair has a snack table in a nearby room. I 
filled up with assorted cookies and cups of coffee. 
    The gift was at first a puzzling device with no instructions. I 
played with it at home and, lo!m it deployed into a cell-phone holder. 
I telescoping handle holds the phone above head-height. A jack on a 
coil-wire fits into the phone to control its camera. The phone sits in 
a well at the upper end of the handle with spring clips. A trigger 
button on the handle sends the shutter signal to the camera. 
    This gadget is handy for parades, conventions, rallies, even 
Manhattanhenge!, where a handheld camera is blocked by people. Holding 
the camera on its long handle held over intervening people captures 
the picture. I do not have such a phone but all newer cell-phones have 
a camera built into it that can be triggered thru the mike-in port. 
    I'm seeing more and more of thee devices, to the point that a 
crowd now has lots of them sprouting up above them. 

    With all business at the Fair done and not seeing Mr kaye around I 
headed home. I did a quick look at the Hamilton house in St Nicholas 
Park It does sit well among the trees and sloping land, as if it was 
always there since the early 1800s. I next called my sister to tell 
her of my homeward trip, then walked to the 145th St station. There I 
boarded a West End train for the ride back to Brooklyn. 
    On  arrival at home my sister told me that Steve called to see if 
I was still at the College looking for him. She recounted my call 
about being on the way home. I called Steve from home and all was well 
with him. 
        I'm thoroly thrilled to resume my duty after losing the 2016 
Fair. Judging at the Fair also shows me the current interests in 
science and engineering in our youth. Their projects today could well 
grow into normal features and services in our lifes tomorrow