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NASA Astronaut Judging at Intel ISEF Finds Inspiration in Student Projects

Jeanette Epps, NASA Astronaut and Grand Awards judge at Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), discusses the judging process and the importance of students participating in science. Interested in becoming a judge for Intel ISEF 2013 or other Society for Science & the Public programs? Visit our website or email for more information.

What made you decide to volunteer as a judge for the Intel ISEF?

I initially got involved in judging science fairs because of my twin sister, Janet.  One of her colleagues at the Patent and Trademark Office told her about volunteering time to evaluate science fair projects at the Intel Science Talent Search.  She asked me to volunteer with her so that she could have a traveling companion. To my surprise, we both really enjoyed being evaluators.  The experience reminded me of graduate school, since the work of many of the students was on the college level.  We enjoyed it so much that we volunteered again the following year.

In 2011, after a two-year hiatus in judging because I was training in Houston, I signed up to be a judge at the Intel ISEF, held that year in Los Angeles. I served as a judge in the Energy and Transportation category, one of 17 categories at the event. I had a great time interviewing and talking to the students as well as meeting the other judges.  Subsequent to the Intel ISEF, I also participated as a judge for the Broadcom MASTERS, another program of SSP. I joined the other judges late in the process, but they welcomed me as if I had always been a part of their team.  Interviewing the students and watching them describe their projects is very rewarding.  I get as much out of it as the students do, so I plan on participating as long as possible.

What is your background in science and research?

As children, my twin sister and I always watched PBS.  We often spent time watching educational and science-based shows. Because we watched so many educational television shows, it influenced our interests, particularly our interest in science.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in physics, and focused on Aerospace Engineering for my Master’s and Ph.D.  After graduate school, I went to work for the Ford Motor Company in the Scientific Research Laboratory.  I then went on to work as an analyst and technical operations officer at the CIA.  Janet is a scientist also – she is a molecular cell biologist. Note: Judges for SSP programs must have either a Ph.D. or a MS degree and 6 years experience in a scientific field.

What is your current involvement in scientific research?

I am one of NASA’s newest astronauts.  I spent the past two years in training. Astronaut training consists of learning to do space walks, known as EVAs (Extra Vehicular Activity), Russian language training, robotics, and International Space Station systems.  I also fly in the backseat cockpit of the T-38 supersonic jet and I am becoming a CAPCOM (capsule communicator), the person in Mission Control Center who interfaces with the crew and the Flight Director.

When astronauts and cosmonauts go the International Space Station (ISS), we conduct scientific and psychological experiments, as well as necessary maintenance and repairs.  I think of the space station itself as a large experiment even though it has been completed. The space station is a step in the process of getting deeper and deeper into space.  All that we learn from living and performing effectively on the ISS, as well as the experiments, will bring us closer to understanding the technology that will allow us to travel to Mars.

Can you describe what your experience as a Grand Judge at Intel ISEF has been like?

The judging process is intense because everyone involved wants to pick the best and be sure that they’ve done due diligence to find the best.  The judging process involves the following: each judge is assigned approximately 15 students to interview.  The night before the judges read the assigned projects. Preliminary grades can be given; however on the following day the scores can be changed based on the interview with the student.

During the interview, judges try to determine how much the student truly understood about his or her project, if the project idea was the student’s, how much work was done by the student, and many other determining factors. Grades are submitted, and then the judges meet within their group to caucus about the student projects and decide student rankings.

The caucus can take hours because of the number of excellent projects.  Each category has a winner, but then the winners of each category are compared to each other in order to determine the top awards. It is amazing to see the rigorous process of selecting a winner.  The commitment and passion of the judges involved is inspiring!  I enjoyed interviewing the students but I also enjoyed meeting the other judges.

Why do you think it’s important for students to participate in events such as the Intel ISEF?

Intel ISEF fills a critical component for the U.S. because this is where students are encouraged to get involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  It is my hope that in the future more students strive to submit a project to a science fair.  All students who participate get value out of being a part of the competition and by being introduced to new ideas, people, experiences, and much more.

What impact do you think you, as a judge, have on students interested in scientific research?

My hope is that I am an encouragement and inspire students to continue in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  I also hope that I can influence them to think of possibilities that they never dreamed imaginable – like striving to become an astronaut.

Do you have any advice for young students interested in pursuing science or for individuals interested in becoming a judge or volunteering at events such as Intel ISEF?

For students interested in pursuing science, I would encourage them to take science and mathematics courses in middle school through high school.  They should talk with their instructors about entering a science fair as well as for help, if they need it, with ideas for a science fair.  When in high school they should also think about getting a summer job working in a laboratory in a field that interests them.

For people interested in volunteering, I would tell them that it is rewarding working with the students as well as the other judges.  I would encourage them to volunteer their time and expertise to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.  The energy and enthusiasm that students have toward their projects and the scientific process is amazing. Working with students is inspiring and they will never regret having volunteered.

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