The annual Google Science Fair launches today, inviting students around the world ages 13-18 to explore and pursue their interests in science and technology. For the past two years, thousands of students from more than 90 countries worldwide have submitted research projects that address some of the most challenging projects we face today. This being the largest online science fair in the world, prizes are pretty big themselves. The grand prize includes a National Geographic Expedition to the Galápagos Islands. National Geographic Explorers T.H. Culhane and Enric Sala are among the renowned panel of scientists that will serve as Science Fair judges. Below, T.H. takes us inside being a judge and what it means to him.
By T.H. Culhane, National Geographic Emerging Explorer
For the past two years I have had the Privilege – and I mean that with a capital P – to act as a judge for the Google Science Fair. And the privilege doesn’t come from rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s greatest scientists, engineers and educators.
No, the privilege comes from having a ringside seat to a sincere spectacle of hope performed by young people from around the planet. The privilege comes from being able to interact with these young researchers, innovators and inventors whose earnest endeavors in engineering and science are on display in the large Google Science Fair hall for the edification of the public.
Each year, Google is transformed into a mini “Palais de Decouvertes”, an “Innoventions Pavilion” where the most extraordinary discoveries are revealed to the world, from simple water purification and hydroponics systems that anybody can build, re-designs for toilets and new ways to monitor air pollution on land and biodiversity in water, to high tech solar trackers, rotational 3D imaging devices, ways of sensing music through touch and neural networks to detect breast cancer, to name just a few from last year.
The difference is that these are students, but potentially the architects of our “bright, big beautiful tomorrow”. They are kids from all walks of life, from every nation, and every socioeconomic circumstance. They are us, when we were young and filled with promise and hope, before the scar tissue of disappointments clouded our vision.
To have the opportunity to come back each year and continue the dialectic, not just observing, but engaging, as a humbled adult, in the science fair dialog these young people carry, is one of the greatest honors in my academic and professional career. We adults who get to participate in this now yearly event, are welcomed through the unguarded openness of the student participants — and that is the privilege of being involved with the Google Science Fair.
I feel like a kid again when National Geographic sends me to Google. I’m infused with a contact high of optimism and camaraderie. The judging I do, wearing my grown-up-explorer’s hat as a college professor who teaches environmental science, NGO director and National Geographic Explorer, does not pass judgment on their talents. It merely helps shepherd the ideas into safe pastures.
The participating students all understand this. I have never caught a whiff of resentment from the other finalists when we announce the grand prize winners. They cheer each other on, and hug each other and form life long friendships to support each other’s continued growth.
Each year when I come back to Google I find that the Google Science Fair family has grown. They actually call it a “family”, an ever expanding global team of explorers. They stay in touch, these remarkable kids, through Google+ Hangouts and other social media, whether they are in Swaziland, India, the Middle East or the Americas (watch a Hangout we did together back in December).
Two years of Google Science Fair challenges have already laid the groundwork for a game changing way to approach problem solving – not only from the grassroots, but from the budding stems of youth engaged in STEM learning. These remarkable young people – all those thousands of students from every walk of life who worked on and submitted projects and ideas from around the world in 2011 and 2012, created the bedrock.
Now it’s your turn to change the world.
And it will be my privilege to get to know you.