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Flipped Science Fair Inspires Youngsters, Enlightens Graduate Students

Jeff Kart
flipped science fair virginia

Ask a scientist what they do, and the answer may be confusing.

Scientists are used to talking to other scientists, in the lab or while conducting research. But when a scientist must explain their work to an elementary school student, for instance, and that younger student is judging the scientist’s presentation, both sides can benefit.

That’s what happened during a “Flip the Fair” event organized earlier this year by Virginia Tech graduate students and Roanoke City Public Libraries. A presentation on the event was part of the Joint Aquatic Sciences Meeting (JASM) in May in Grand Rapids, Michigan, near Lake Michigan.

In a typical poster session, students present their research and their poster is judged by faculty or other experts. But at Flip the Fair, graduate students presented posters summarizing their research to elementary school students. Third, fourth and fifth graders, ages 8-10, did the judging.

The overall winner was Holly Morrison, a Ph.D. student in Virginia Tech’s Biomedical and Veterinary Sciences program. Morrison called it “the most meaningful award I’ve won yet … the icing on the cake is inspiring children that their future in science is as big as they dream.”

Graduate students Abigail Lewis, Carla López Lloreda, Grace O’Malley and Heather Wander presented at JASM and helped organize the fair.

flip the science fair organizers

Flip the Fair organizers, from left to right: Heather Wander, Emma Bueren, Carla López Lloreda, Amanda Hensley, Claudia Perez, Abby Lewis, Grace O’Malley and Sophie Drew with Gates Palissery (inset). Credit: Virginia Tech

The goals of flipping the traditional science fair were to strengthen science outreach and graduate training.

“Not every graduate student has had the opportunity to communicate with a diverse audience or to communicate their science to children” or the layperson, O’Malley said.

Organizers partnered with Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science for the two-hour event, which involved 27 graduate students and more than 250 participants.

The center hosted workshops beforehand to discuss ways of communicating science to youngsters and people from diverse backgrounds. Organizers specifically reached out to elementary schools in Roanoke for the fair. Most schools in the area include students from low-income families who face barriers to entering science fields.

“Through these workshops, we were able to build confidence in our graduate student presenters and give them the skills necessary to participate in the flipped fair,” O’Malley said.

That preparation helped elementary students see themselves as budding scientists able to pursue careers in the field, organizers said. Graduate students also learned from their younger judges.

Presenters surveyed after the fair said they were rewarded during “I get it” moments while explaining their research to grade schoolers, Lloreda said.

Two short documentaries were created following the fair, including a 6-minute short.

The flipped format allowed kids to get an idea of what it’s like to be a scientist, participants said. Graduate students had to think about new ways to present their material, breaking down scientific questions and findings to make them easily digestible to elementary students.

Graduate student Jeffery Anderson Jr. said he prepared by talking to family members who aren’t scientists, learning to explain things “without putting them to sleep.”

Another graduate student, Brian Ruether, said he came to realize that his research on insect repellent wasn’t really that complex. “It’s just: What do bugs think smell bad?”

O’Malley said Yale University in Connecticut helped pioneer the flipped fair concept. Yale officials say they were inspired by the Kid’s Judge Neuroscience Fair at the University of Pennsylvania.

Wander and other organizers recommend the flipped format to other schools and organizations in the binational Great Lakes region and elsewhere. Grants are available. Virginia Tech received funding from American Geophysical Union’s Sharing Science program.

Jeff Kart

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the Shared Waters IJC newsletter and a contractor to the US Section of the International Joint Commission in Washington, D.C.

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