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Friday, April 20, 2012


Long ago, Merlin Mann wrote, “Innovation is starting where the last person stopped.” I remembered that.

I figure good ideas are a by-product of posting two a week and seeing 20 a month to exercise my thinker.

Or keeping good notes. Which means having paper and a writing stick most of the time. And paying attention.

An investor once said I didn’t capture the notes of our meeting. I wrote the notes of what should have happened.

I don’t do smart on demand. I’d rather hear about a concept and take some time considering it from different directions.

Next steps often start by observing other people. Concepts become useful by writing them...several times.

The true meaning of a post can come from comments by readers.

When I’m building a new tool, there is a flurry of innovation just after I produce the first version. After a week, the improvements start to tail off. Some of the oldies don’t change year to year.

How are you harnessing innovation?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Judging A School Science Fair

(Guest post)

Last Wednesday I volunteered as a Washington Academy of Sciences Science Fair Judge at Paint Branch High School. I was a bit nervous, because I never judged a Science Fair before, and my only experiences judging young adults and children were for student horse shows. When I arrived, a nice student led me through the maze of hallways to the staging area, and I met Dick Davies, from the Washington Academy of Sciences.  Dick, and the other core members of the judging team were very welcoming, and Dick explained their philosophy of judging.

First, I was surprised that there wasn’t a scoring, or ranking of first, second, or third place – this was totally unlike the Science Fairs I participated in when I was in school. I was really impressed with the Academy’s approach – that the judges’ primary responsibility is to encourage students in their interest and pursuit of science, complimenting them, and offering positive guidance. It made me wish I was a student now – the encouragement would have been much more positive than the disappointment I received when my project didn’t win in my school’s Science Fairs.

Representatives from Paint Branch High School worked hard to set up for us. They had sandwiches and juice waiting, and welcomed us with folders of information about their school. My favorite was the What is Special about Paint Branch High School?, handout from the principal, Jeanette Dixon, Paint Branch High school’s Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Award winner. The handout highlights student accomplishments and listed special programs and the high-level curriculum offered. Another handout gave the awards achieved by students.

Pam Leffler, the science coordinator passionately described the new school building currently under construction. She clearly displayed pride in her career – she had been with the school for more than 20 years, saying she was so happy there, she “had no reason to go elsewhere” – and told us that their new building will have 12 new science labs, and a greenhouse. 

I was relieved that each new judge would paired with an experienced judge. I was teamed up with a retired NIH scientist, Dr. Peter Lemkin, whose knowledge of genetic diseases and ‘green’ energy sources was expansive.  He asked me the kinds of projects I wanted to see, and chose Horticulture, AP Environmental Science, and AP Biology (the upper-level AP courses are freshman-level college courses taught in the high-school).

One student who presented her project to Peter and me expressed her interest in blood diseases.  She’s already been accepted into the University of Maryland, College Park.  I told the students about USDA’s AgDiscovery Program, and, and Peter told her that NIH offers similar opportunities. We told them to check the Departments’ and Agencies’ websites on information on how to apply for internships. They were astonished they could be paid to perform scientific research as high school students.

Dick Davies and the others invited us to participate in another Science Fair the next day, but I declined because it is during the workday. I accepted his offer to be included in WAS e-mails for future Science Fairs, and I said I would be glad to help out next year. The Junior Academy of the Washington Academy of Sciences is always looking for scientists and technologists to volunteer as judges for school science programs.

Robin Wilcox has been with United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) since 2007. Years ago, she was a member of the USDA Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. In between, she has managed horse farms, trained horses, and taught riding. Robin continues to raise and trail ride Paso Fino horses.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Science Fair – Learning Abounds

(Guest Post - Jack Gates is COO of Sales Lab and a frequent contributor to the Junior Academy) 

The Junior Academy of the Washington Academy of Sciences judge school science fairs in the Washington DC area and I have the honor of participating as a judge.

WAS Judges - Paint Branch HS
Science & Media Signature Expo March 2012
What a delight to listen to the students presenting their projects, what they thought would happen, what actually happened, and what they discovered. How refreshing to see their passion and enthusiasm as they share what they learned – learning by doing – and their pride of accomplishment as they speak with the judges.

Each student participating in the science fair receives a certificate acknowledging their participation and the accomplishment of presenting the project. It has the student's name, their school, the date, and is signed by Dick Davies, the Vice President – Junior Academy – the certificate is presented to the student after the science fair. How do they feel about receiving the certificate? They appreciate the acknowledgment of their contribution and value a reminder of the accomplishment of doing and learning. How do I know what the students' think? They offer comments about being a part of the science fair and what they get out of their participation. Positive and meaningful!

Last year in a discussion about awarding a certificate to each student, I offered an observation about sports teams that give a trophy to each player regardless of their contribution – the better players have devalued the trophy as it is no longer evidence of their competitive ability.
Jack Gates

But a science fair is not a competition – it is participating in learning and sharing what is discovered, was the response to my point. In this light, I had to agree. However, when I heard from the students about their feelings on receiving a certificate, I was transformed into an avid supporter of 'certificating' students. In fact, I feel if you want to generate enthusiasm and engage the student, award a certificate to commemorate the student's accomplishment and contribution – it will add another dimension to the event.

Last year, the science leaders at Paint Branch High School - Jeanette Dixon (Principal), Brian Eichenlaub (Signature Head), Pamela Leffler (Science Head) – reinvented the Science & Media Signature Expo (science fair) from the traditional format: shifting it to the evening so more parents can attend, staging the projects in locations throughout the building with science posters and items in the hallways, and encouraging the students to have fun and share what they learned – it was a carnival atmosphere with plenty of fun. 

Brian                                       Pam

As a result, this year the number of exhibits increased from approximately 150 to 500, and the Expo took over most of the first floor in the school. As visitors entered the exhibit halls, students would greet them eagerly and try to entice them to visit one or another of the demonstration stations where students did live experiments to show a specific scientific principle followed by a crisp explanation of what happened and why. The students were having fun, the visitors were engaged and learned – and stayed for hours – and the teachers, planners, and judges saw potential scientists and life-long learners.

The students discovered what happens when an experiment works or doesn't work and that you can learn from both. The Paint Branch HS science leaders made changes which enhanced the program by greater community participation – students, parents, schools staff. We learned that certificates are placeholders for student accomplishments and achievements – saved and shown to others with pride.

Would you share other initiatives that engage and excite the students in hands on learning?

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