HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (Feb. 13, 2020) – There’s more to being a science fair judge than evaluating student projects. That’s what professionals at the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, continue to discover as they volunteer for science fairs and similar community outreach events.
Here are four reasons to volunteer next time an opportunity arises:
1. It helps develop children.
“We have a duty and responsibility to the next generation, providing them guidance that they may not get at home,” said Raúl Alonso, design manager with the Architect-Engineer Contracts and Criteria Branch. He volunteered at Williams Middle School’s Jan. 30 science fair. “I get to inform students about the importance of schoolwork, what we do as engineers, and the impact we have in the world.”
Meghan Clardy, a chemical engineer with Cost Engineering, volunteered for a second time at Monte Sano Elementary School. She sees volunteering as a way to make a difference in the lives of Huntsville youths.
“By volunteering, I get the opportunity to encourage young minds to keep questioning and learning about the world around them,” said Clardy. “I’d encourage everyone to participate because investing in the youth is investing in your hometown.”
For the children, Clardy said, a science fair gives them their first formal experience using the scientific method – but she said it doesn’t have to be the last time they use it.
“As engineers, we often pride ourselves on being problem-solvers,” she said, “and the scientific method is a great structure to teach a methodical approach to doing just that.”
2. It gives teachers a unique and valuable way to reach students.
“Teachers can provide basic concepts, but engineers, as subject-matter experts, provide insights that educators may not be able to,” Alonso said.
Tori Turner, a sixth-grade teacher at Williams Middle School, said science fairs give students a chance to interact in formal setting with adults who are not their teachers.
“It gives them the opportunity to not feel the pressure from teachers grading them, and it gives them an outside view on what the world might be like once they get into the workforce,” said Turner. “They’ll be able to learn how to communicate with people through events like this.”
Linda Tisdale, a sixth-grade teacher at Monte Sano Elementary School, agreed.
“A lot of times in school, they ask, ‘Am I ever going to use this?’ I think this gives them that real-world perspective,” said Tisdale, who presided over Monte Sano’s science fair. “I wish this was a requirement at all schools.”
3. It gets students excited about STEM fields.
“During my senior year in high school, an engineer came and spoke to us about ‘applied science,’” Alonso said. “It was these two words that sparked me to pursue engineering.”
Alonso seized the chance to return the favor Jan. 30 at Williams Middle School, taking some time after evaluating projects to sit down with a group of sixth-graders and talk to them about opportunities in the engineering field.
Clardy emphasized the importance of reaching out and encouraging the youth to get excited about science and problem-solving, especially because STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is such a big part of Huntsville.
“Encouraging local young minds to continue questioning and problem-solving is encouraging the future of Huntsville to continue to lead innovation,” she said.
Russ Dunford, chief of Strategic Plans and Integration at Huntsville Center, accompanied Clardy at the Monte Sano Elementary science fair.
He said this kind of outreach is a great way to open their eyes to the professional opportunities that could be awaiting them one day – possibly at Huntsville Center.
“We can’t wait anymore until the kids are seniors in college to recruit them,” Dunford said. “Some of them don’t even know about the Corps of Engineers, so what better way than to interact with them at this level at a science fair. It plants seeds, and it’s just good community outreach.”
4. It’s just a whole lot of fun.
“I think it’s a great overall experience for the students,” Turner said. “As much as they might sometimes push back on having to do the projects, I think once they get here and meet the judges and see each other’s projects, I see them getting excited and wanting to talk about them – and they get to brag about themselves a little bit.”
If you ask Dunford, science fairs are just as invigorating for volunteers.
“The science projects they do are incredible,” he said. “They have the problem statement, the hypothesis, they understand how to analyze the data, how to plot the data, how to interpret the data. I get excited about it. You’d be amazed at how good these kids are.”