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Judging the Computer Science Fair

Business Causal?

On the appointed day, I dressed "business causal" passing on my usual programming garb of 1999-vintage blue jeans (with genuine holes, not manufactured ones), "Multithreaded Java" embossed cotton-threaded tee-shirt, combination rock-climbing/kayaking shoes, and my one-of-a-kind necklace, a terabyte flash drive on a lanyard imprinted with "free the mallocs." (I know, they don't make terabyte flash drives yet. Don't tell anyone but mine's a 1-gigabyte drive that I've labeled 1-terabyte. It always raises eyebrows among the geeks at the coffeehouse.)

In case you're wondering, dressing business causal is what you wear for casual business. Dressing business serious is for getting down to serious business (no smiling), and business as usual, the choice for anything but the unusual, and nobody's business which is wearing nothing at all.

Arriving at Heinz Field, I saw columns of students carrying tri-fold presentation boards overhead like armies of leaf-cutter ants converging on their nest. I joined one column following them into the west gate where a security guard stopped me. "Hey, school bus driver. Bus parking is in lot A."

School bus driver? Me? I lowered one eye, cocked my head, and lifting my chin slowly said "I'm a judge." The guard gave me a look as if to say what is the world coming to and dismissed me with "You want the east stadium entrance." I was tempted to point out that this was a Field, not a stadium, but thought the better of it and began the trek east.

Fortunately, the east entrance could be reached by cutting through a few we-have-a-naming-opportunity-for-you halls and The Coca-Cola Great Hall. The shortcut also afforded sneak previews of the entries as students set up their tri-folds on tables with an occasional tri-fold succumbing to gravity and taking out a dozen or so adjacent tri-folds.

I smiled approvingly as I swaggered past these industrious youngsters assuming that they must regard this event as one of the definitive moments in their personal and intellectual development. In actuality it probably ranked below their plans to watch "Pimp My Ride" on MTV that evening. In any case, they hardly gave me a second glance. They probably thought I was a school bus driver.

At the registration desk I met the other members of the IEEE team. We were given 200-page books with abstracts of each project and badges that identified us as judges. The six of us decided on a divide and conquer strategy; three teams of two would evaluate the senior, intermediate and junior divisions. We would bestow two $50 cash awards and six Honorable Mention awards for outstanding projects related to computer science and electrical engineering.

I and another judge took the intermediate division, grades 7 and 8, and we headed to the we-have-a-naming-opportunity-for-you intermediate division hall.

The students that had heretofore ignored me, now fixated on me, watching my every move, engaging me with broad, welcoming smiles. I assumed that someone else must be the object of their attention, perhaps the defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers was tailing me, but there was no one behind me. Being a science fair official, I scientifically deduced that what transformed me in the eyes of the students from person of no consequence to person of a whole lot of consequence was the addition of a strip of red ribbon on my lapel with the five letters J-U-D-G-E.

Making our way to the computer science and engineering sections, my partner and I rambled through the biology, chemistry and medical sections, the traditional mainstays of science fairs. A sampling of the projects there included (and the following are actual titles) "Termite Taste Test," "Are Hospital Cafeterias Making Us Sick?" "Can Coca Cola Burn Paint Off a Car?" and possibly all permutations of the words Mold, Bacteria and Growth Rate.

I paused at "How Effective Is Your Mouthwash?" and "Effectiveness of Mouthwash," the scholarly research of a 7th grader and an 8th grader, and started taking notes, but my partner nudged me on.

Finally, we reached our destination, the computer science and engineering sections, leaving in our wake scores of frowning students from other sections whom we tried to placate by saying apologetically, "We're only judging computer science and engineering," which no doubt inspired more than one student to consider changing the titles of their projects from "The Growth Rate of Bacteria" to "The Growth Rate of Bacteria on Computer Keyboards."

Our first stop was "Learning the ABC's of CBA's [Citizens Band Antennas]," the work of a home-schooled student, apparently inspired by the old proverb "necessity is the mother of a science project." His family used CB radios for communication on their farm, and he had built his own antennas for optimal reception to help overcome signal dead-spots. He explained the science of radio frequency wave lengths, radiation resistance, decibel gain and whether or not a cow chewing its cud would scramble radio signals into unintelligible static. (Oops, my scrawled notes were wrong on that last point -- the effect of a cow chewing its cud on radio waves was my suggestion for next year's science project.)

The most significant addition to my knowledge base that day came at the next project, "Tin and Metallic Whiskers." You may think your world is carefree if your data center has bug-free software, state-of-the-art hardware, a hydroelectric-plant or two of backup power, and a disaster recovery plan warranted for nuclear blasts and asteroid strikes, but have you accounted for Tin Whiskers? As explained by the 8th grade researcher, Tin Whiskers are electrically conductive, crystalline structures of tin that grow from tin-plated hardware components causing short circuits. They have been implicated in several mechanical and electrical breakdowns including the failure of three orbital satellites.

This whiskerless lad collaborated with a NASA scientist to learn about whiskers of metal. He even had whiskered metal plates on display for touch and feel demonstrations. And yes, you could feel the whiskers -- not strokeable, ZZ Top-length beards but certainly at least five o'clock shadows. I quizzed the whisker investigator. Did I need to augment my computer maintenance regimen of virus scans, backups, and Microsoft Patch Tuesday with circuit board shaving? According to this whisker expert, the problem occurs in pure-tin plated components. Tin-lead alloys inhibit the growth of metallic whiskers but the decreasing use of lead due to environmental hazards means tin whiskers may be a growing, hairy, stubbly (all puns intended) problem for some time.

No doubt the manufacturers of Gillette and Edge shaving creams are now testing concoctions for tin whiskers. When you see ads in trade publications for computer shaving cream—in moisturizing foam as well as soothing, scented gel -- remember, you read it here first.

After visiting the remaining exhibits in our section including the best sampling rate for MP3's, the effectiveness of spyware detection programs, and the energy efficiency of LED's among others, it was time for the judges to earn their pay -- those lunch sandwiches -- and begin judging in earnest. We reviewed our notes on the projects, deliberated on the scientific achievements of the teenage presenters, and reached verdicts without having to appeal to higher level science fair judges (the Nobel Prize Committee). We selected "Tin and Metallic Whiskers" for an IEEE Sponsor Award of $50 and "Learning the ABC's of CBA's" for an Honorable Mention.

If you ever have the opportunity to judge a science fair, I highly recommend it. And if you don't want to be mistaken for a school bus driver, you can borrow my wig. It's still in the original packaging.

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