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Judging the Computer Science Fair

Edward J. Joyce, a principal software engineer, chants the mantra of "free the mallocs" daily at CA, Inc.

One day I was blasting through a couple of screenfuls of unread email, trying to set a new record for speed reading, when I came upon it. There in the local IEEE bulletin between the meeting notice for "The Evolution and Revolutions in Disk Drive Recording" and the list of "New Senior Members" was the announcement "SCIENCE FAIR JUDGES NEEDED."

For those of us who make a living in the computer industry, the science fairs of our formative years, back when the earth was still cooling, probably lacked a computer science category. Even today students rank computer science low in their choice for science fair projects. At the Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair, for example, for which the IEEE was recruiting judges, only 3 percent of the projects were in the computer science/math category.

I re-read the IEEE announcement. I had put in my time behind the keyboard, a career of cobbling together software, patching code, and making programs work under duress (sales contracts pending) but did I have the qualifications to help mold the minds of the next generation? I posed the question to my wife, my children, my co-workers, my therapist. Their answer was unequivocal and unanimous.

Ignoring that advice (as I sometimes -- okay, often do), I responded to the email link and offered my services as a science fair judge, ready for on the job training.

While waiting for the reply, I wondered if the judging business would require gavel, black robe and even a wig. Two days later, came the three-sentence response: "I have forwarded your contact information to the science fair organizers. They will reply with details on when and where to meet at Heinz Field. What is your choice for lunch: turkey, tuna or vegetarian?" (Ah, my first decision as a judge.)

That was it. I was an officially sanctioned judge for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Along with five other IEEE members, I would be spending a day at Heinz Field evaluating the research of budding computer scientists and engineers, grades 6 to 12.

Wait a minute -- Heinz Field, the home turf of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Did I just get drafted to judge a punt, pass, and kick competition? Would students face-off at the 50-yard line to demonstrate homebrew recipes for rocket propellants? Would these aspiring scientists be measuring the adhesive qualities of nacho cheese on stadium seats?

I soon discovered there's more to Heinz Field then, well, the Field of Heinz. There's The Coca-Cola Great Hall and other we-have-a-naming-opportunity-for-you halls that can accommodate 1000 students and their tri-fold presentation boards lined side by side.

The Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Science Center organizes the fair, funding it with contributions from sponsoring corporations, universities, government agencies and associations such as the IEEE. Besides paying for judges' lunches (a footnote -- nay, a toe-note -- on the ledger), the money underwrites awards for outstanding projects chosen by the sponsors. Four senior division students are presented all-expense-paid trips to compete at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Reno, Nevada. Colleges and universities, looking to entice the most promising of the student-scientists, offer tuition scholarships.

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