By Maija maijamMcLaughlin, Director of Digital Access, Fayetteville Free Library

The Environmental Challenge is a science fair hosted by the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.  In collaboration with the Syracuse City School District, SUNY-ESF invites 800 7th and 8th graders to participate in a science fair held in the Carrier Dome.  At the first Environmental Challenge in 2001, there were about 35 participants.   Although it is named the Environmental Challenge, science fair projects are not limited to just environmental topics.  It is all about encouraging STEM so each participant receives a 1st, 2nd or 3rd place ribbon.  SUNY-ESF recruits judges from the community with an educational or STEM background.  As science fair participants, students will be learning through doing.  All of the skills the students use while working on their project will benefit them in the future. Skills such as making observations, identifying problems, interpreting data, giving a presentation and creating posters are just a handful of the skills students will take away from this experience.

SUNY-ESF reached out to the Fayetteville Free Library requesting judges for the challenge.  When I received an invitation to judge the Environmental Challenge I did not hesitate to accept the invite.  The day of the science fair, all judges received training and breakfast in the morning.  SUNY-ESF provided fantastic training by walking us through a mock judging scenario.   Judges received a packet including a rubric used to score projects.  Judges scored students on Content/Knowledge of Project, Presentation, Use of Inquiry Process, and Answering questions.   The presenters demonstrated how to use the rubric and provided us with time to ask questions.  SUNY-ESF required all projects to be judged by three different judges.  One of the primary goals as judges was to determine if they used scientific method during their experiments and if they understood what happened in their experiment.EnvironChallenge

Finally we get to enter the Carrier Dome!  The best part of judging was talking with the students.  During training, judges received tips on how to engage students.  I was very lucky to be with a group that was thoroughly engaged with their projects.  All I had to do was introduce myself as a judge and they were in presentation mode.  My favorite question to ask was how they determined their project topic.  The range of projects was diverse, from electricity/current to flying paper airplanes.  Some of the students worked in pairs and some worked solo.  All of the students provided pictures, graphs and text description of their projects.   Of course, the degree of complexity the projects displayed was diverse.  Students were honest about receiving help with the project from a parent.  During our training, were forewarned about this but instructed to dig into what the student understood about their project findings and data.  Science Fairs are an opportunity to get students thinking about real world issues.  By encouraging students to use technology to find solutions, students realize they can make a difference.

If you ever get a chance to participate in a science fair, I suggest you go for it.  It is time well spent.  Public libraries might even consider hosting a science fair for homeschoolers.