Problem Solving and the 2014 Sarasota Regional Science Fair

Science FairThe Sarasota Regional Science Fair concluded this afternoon with the Middle and High School judging of over 200 projects, while on Tuesday the Elementary 3rd through 5th graders participated with over 300 projects. It was another smashing success for the students and judges with a lot of happy students showing judges their projects, answering questions while the judges scored them on Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablets.

We have used the tablets two years in a row now with great success. The judges have provided positive feedback, while at the same time growing in numbers because of the positive experience they are having. Last year we brought 120 tablets, having enough the first day with only 60 to 80 judges. The second day we ran out of tablets, having to give 4 judges pencil and paper judging forms. The reason we ran out? Because we had judges that were so happy with their experience that they came back on Thursday for the second day of judging even though they had not signed up. Some judges even brought coworkers with them too.

This year I prepared for a higher number by bring just over 140 tablets. The first day we had 85 to 100 judges and I was worried about day two with that turnout because Elementary judging usually has the lower turnout and if some of those judges turned out on Thursday we would be doing the paper judging with more than just 4 people. Well, we came close as we had about 139 judges today! Great turnout and another successful day with the closed system judging that I started last year and continued this year.

I have worked the Science Fair for the last four years. The first two were not the best movement forward into the digital age with the use of Blackberry’s, WiFi and data to a judging form at a remote location. Each year at the debrief I presented suggestions about what I saw and what I felt would help us move forward to a successful fair with no paper judging. Last year our new Director of IT, my former direct supervisor, gave me an open pad and asked me to draw my plan. What I presented is what we have done the last two years, with minor tweaks this year and more from what I saw this year hopefully.

What I had been planning for over a year before being allowed to have a go at it was to use a closed system at the Fair location. I got a retired server, upgraded it to Windows 2008 server with IIS and MSSQL server. The judging form is written in SQL, residing on the server. When we get to the Fair we turn on the server, turn on DHCP and our senior networking technician Jay Solum sets up a wireless controller and a switch that connects 4 CISCO wireless access points spread out the length of the Fair building. We set up the tablets with the address of the judging form on the IIS, let the tablet find, then attach to the wireless SSID that Jay setup. From there it’s just a matter of the judges coming in, giving out the tablets and waiting for any questions. We took a count this year and after handing out the tablets we had less than 30 questions total for two days, with most of the questions being “I touched here and now I can’t find the page I was on.” That is a question I will be happy to have because it’s not a judging or system problem, it’s a normal problem for people not used to everyday use of a tablet. I even lose my place every once in a while with my tablets.

Two years ago I had a problem. I relied on my background in math, which taught me problem solving techniques, to come up with a solution to what was not a positive step into new technology. I moved from small digital devices to large 10.1 inch tablets. George and Greg made an easier judging form and I got rid of the public open network issue with a closed WiFi network that only the tablets were attached to. I wrote a post in 2007 called “The secret to being good at Science: Take more Math classes” which is the basis for the problem solving skills I have today. The students that do the best at the Science Fair are the ones that take a lot of math. They understand the problem solving skills from their math lessons and apply them to the problems that they solve with their Science projects.

Congratulations to all the participants and especially the winners! Keep problem solving, you never know when you will need to solve a problem when you are older that will affect hundreds, maybe thousands of people,  or students and judges!