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Teacher Volunteers as Broadcom MASTERS Judge to Promote Experiential Learning

Bill Wallace teaches physiology and research methods in biology at Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. He has also volunteered as the head judge of the Broadcom MASTERS, a program of Society for Science & the Public, for the past two years. In addition, he has volunteered as an evaluator for the Intel Science Talent Search for almost two decades. Bill also recently received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Below he describes why he volunteers and the importance of research-based science education.

All children are born with an innate curiosity about their world. The primary tasks of science education are to foster this curiosity and to give the child the intellectual tools to more effectively satisfy it. Whether as a research scientist, a science teacher, or a volunteer with Society for Science & the Public (the Society), I have felt an obligation to convey the excitement of scientific discovery and instill the discipline to think like a scientist.

I started my career in science during elementary school as an amateur naturalist by collecting turtles, snakes, and other local animals. I spent much of my time in creeks, ponds, and woods observing ecosystems and the evolutionary process in action. Later, in college, my biochemistry professor, Dr. Holmlund, invited me to work in his lab. Starting out as a dishwasher, I eventually earned the ability to conduct my own research investigation determining the effects of riboflavin analogs on the growth of protists. I spent more time in the lab than I spent on all of my courses combined. I have been hooked on science research ever since.

After receiving my doctorate in Biochemistry from Case Western Reserve University,  I was a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Paul Greengard (Nobel Laureate, 2000). I was on faculty at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, investigating the molecular biology of Alzheimer’s disease and growth factors in the brain.

When I reached the stage of my science career that took me out of the lab and put me at a desk, I became a science teacher. As a teacher at Georgetown Day School, I emphasize teaching my students how scientists think in all of my lessons. For example, I designed and conduct a course called Research Methods in Biology. The seniors in this course learn the basic skills of biological research such as reading professional science journals, designing experiments, and statistical analysis of experimental data. Armed with these new skills, the students then undertake an original open-ended investigation of their own choice. Examples of such projects include determining the effects of alcohol intoxication on wing development in drosophila and characterizing the role of associative learning in altering the instinctive behavior of pill bugs.

Because I value teaching science from the perspective of experiential learning so much, I volunteer to work with the Society. I have evaluated Intel Science Talent Search applications for nearly twenty years. I have spoken to the Society Fellows, presenting a model research investigation that brings experiential learning to the high school classroom. Most recently, I have become a judge for the Broadcom MASTERS.

The Broadcom MASTERS involves middle school students who have placed in the top 10% in regional science fairs across the country. Award winning nominees apply for the MASTERS by submitting a description of their project and their scientific interests to the Society. Evaluators chose 300 semi-finalists based upon scientific merit of the project and the scientific potential of the applicant. My four fellow judges and I then meet at the Society headquarters and choose the thirty finalists. During this session, we examine each application for sound scientific thinking, student initiative, and an original scientific approach to tackling a well -explained problem. The science fair projects cover an incredibly wide range of topics: artificial intelligence, game theory, engineering design, explaining biodiversity within two neighboring ecosystems, and more. The finalists then compete in Washington D.C. where we get the opportunity to meet each student in person. During their time in Washington, the students are challenged in both an individual and team context. Initially, the students present their research investigations to the judges individually using posters. During this session, we like to see the competitor’s ownership of the research. For example, we want to know the reason why the investigation was started in the first place. As a judge, I will ask progressively more difficult questions until the student eventually must speculate as a way to measure how well a student can think on her feet.

The competitors are then grouped into six teams consisting of five students. Each team is then challenged with an engineering or scientific problem. Each judge then observes the teams as they consider the challenge and design a response. We consider scientific thinking but we also look for the ability of students to collaborate both as a leader and as a follower. Another important characteristic is the originality in the approach to a particular problem.

At the completion of the competitions, the judges convene to decide upon the awards. Our discussions last well into the night as we carefully consider all thirty students. Eventually a small number of competitors will stand out and bubble to the top for various reasons, including showing an original scientific or engineering idea in their research, exhibiting genuine enthusiasm during the challenges, or collaborating to improve the performance of all teammates in the challenges. The field of science does not affect the chances of the winner. For example, last year’s winner (Daniel Feeny) investigated tidal pool biodiversity as a function of wave strength while Raymond Gilmartin, this year’s winner, designed the most effective rear spoiler in cars using a home-made wind tunnel and model cars.

My experience as a Broadcom MASTERS judge has given me the opportunity to apply my professional commitment to teach experiential learning. All of these competitors have made their own commitment to learn science by doing science. Their efforts have been rewarded by recognition as finalists in this prestigious competition and by their experiences in Washington D.C. These experiences will foster a greater enthusiasm for scientific discovery and a better appreciation for thinking like a scientist. We all look forward to their continued development as scientists.