Last weekend I helped judge the Hawaii State Science Olympiad finals tournament. This is an annual tournament, held in conjunction with other events across the country that allow kids in middle school and high school to test their science knowledge in written exams and hands-on challenges. I remember Science Olympiad from when I was in high school, but I never joined the team. Somehow it just didn't interest me back then. Too much work, I guess. And work that might cut into my free time after school or on the weekends.
Here's how it happened: An e-mail from the organizer of Honolulu Science Cafe asked for volunteers. I replied that I'd be happy to "help out." The HSSO director said he was so happy I wanted to get involved, and then he put me in charge of the event. When I realized what he had in mind--that this would involve more than just milling around a classroom and answering easy questions--I was terrified. "I'm not a teacher!" I insisted. "I've never written a test!" But he reassured me that I could do it. And strangely, I started to believe him.
At that time, I happened to be reading The Wave Watcher's Companion, by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, and the book happens to be a perfect primer for real-life examples of wave physics, the sort of stuff that should go in a Science Olympiad test. I realized this while on the phone with the HSSO director. That realization, along with his encouragement, let me to believe that perhaps it was my destiny to say "yes." So I did. And I read the book. Then I started writing test questions. I sent my exam to the physics professor who serves as science advisor to HSSO. With his help, I developed a few extra questions that tested the students' knowledge of resonance using air cannons and a pendulum. (This was the practical part of the exam.)
On March 15 I showed up for the event. Even before 7 a.m., teams started congregating on the college campus wearing matching t-shirts and setting up tables with snacks to sustain them through the day's events. They were pumped. They were earnest. Some of them had traveled to Oahu from the neighboring islands to compete. Their parents and teachers looked so proud.
I met the first round of competitors at 8:15 a.m. and we started the clock. At 9:30, the second round of competitors began testing. They were teams of two working together to solve the problems I had written. They used calculators and reference binders and took the whole thing very seriously. After everyone had finished, I gathered the tests and moved to the judges' lounge to begin grading.
My objective while I was writing the test was to develop questions that would matter to kids who live in Hawaii. I wanted them to see real-life examples, based on what's around them here, so that they could understand that science isn't just about memorization. Science is cool! What I didn't realize is that if you write questions like that--open-ended questions that force kids to apply information they may have just memorized--the grading can be very tough. Multiple-choice questions are easier and save some time, but open-ended responses have to be considered carefully. And that takes time...lots of it.
It was a very long Saturday. I returned home 8 hours after having left the house, pretty much exhausted. But I learned a lot because of Science Olympiad. I learned that kids need their parents to follow-up at home about what's happening at school. "You're learning about geometry? So tell me, why would anyone want to build a round house?" Or "Electromagnetic radiation? Huh. So what does it mean when we see a 'black light'?"
They need us to ask fun questions like this. They need for us to stay curious about the world so that we can teach them to stay curious, to go beyond memorization and ask questions about why what they're learning in school actually matters.
I also learned that writing and grading tests can be really hard. It takes a lot of time and careful thought. If I was a teacher, I wouldn't want to re-write my exams every year, and I'd be REALLY mad if I found out that someone had illegally shared the test I spent so much time developing. A well-written test demands honest effort in the test-taking.
Maybe the most important lesson from this experience is that sometimes its good to run towards fear. I was seriously scared to do this. The experience was well outside of what I do for my job, what's comfortable and familiar to me. But we only learn when we're exposed to things that are new, right? You can't grow unless you're under a little bit of stress.
Would I do it again? Probably not for an event like "Crave the Wave," which forced me to spend weeks re-learning things that I've forgotten during the last dozen-or-so years out of college. But they have another event called "Write It, Do It" that involves studying a sculpture and describing it in detail so that someone can re-build what you saw later. I think that might be a better fit for me next year.