Two Days and Two Nights Volunteering at ISEF 2011

This is a post from Garrett Holthaus, one of the many Intel employee volunteers who supported the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) last week in L.A. ISEF is a program of Society for Science and the Public.

Last week I had the good fortune to be selected as one of 10 Intel volunteers from the Santa Clara, CA and Chandler, AZ campuses to go to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF for short) and help out with the Student Observer Caucus. What is a student observer, you ask? In addition to the high school-level finalists who are vying for the top $75,000 Gordon E. Moore Award and other awards, many schools also send other students to ISEF. These students, mainly from high school and middle school, come to ISEF to meet other like-minded students from all over the world, learn about the finalists and their projects, and observe the busy excitement of a week’s worth of seminars, presentations, award ceremonies, and social events. This year, for the first time, ISEF included a day of events planned specifically for the student observers, which is where my nine coworkers and I came in.

After arriving Tuesday night and attending a social event for finalists, observers, and other guests, we got up early on Wednesday and made our way to the LA Convention Center and the rooms reserved for the Student Observer Caucus. Everywhere we looked on the streets of downtown LA, there were groups of students, volunteers, judges, and interpreters walking around wearing Intel ISEF badges. Wednesday was judging day, so the finalists were all dressed up and manning their blue and white-trimmed booths in the main hall, which was teeming with action as judges moved between this year’s more than 1,600 ISEF entries. While this was taking place, I helped at the sign-in table, where I got a chance to dust off my Spanish speaking skills (mostly shelved since college) and help check in a group of students from Argentina who arrived at the last minute. The student observers had a choice of four different events in the morning session: talking to science and engineering professionals about their careers, sharing their own science projects with other students and getting feedback, participating in a science “relay,” and conducting one of several hands-on science experiments. I was assigned to the career exploration session, where I got to answer many different questions from the students, including how I decided to pursue microprocessor design as a career (my parents bought an Atari home computer one year and I was hooked), and how I got my job (“Students, learn the location of your university’s career services department and use it, use it well!”).

After lunch came the highlight of the day for me: the Rube Goldberg Chain Reaction. In a large room, there were more than 20 oblong tables set up along the perimeter, each with a large stock of cardboard and some basic tools. In the center of the room was a set of tables filled with all sorts of toys, implements and random parts–it looked like a hardware store fire sale! Rounding out the arsenal of tools were four hot glue gun stations, manned by watchful adult volunteers. From these miscellaneous items, teams of 4-5 students constructed more than 20 Rube Goldberg machines, with the only constraint being that the machine had to be started by pulling on a string, and had to finish by pulling another string. You can see where this is headed–at the end of the day, we tied all the strings together, and watched as the first machine kicked off a chain reaction of marbles rolling, weights falling, pendulums swinging, and mousetraps snapping (with a few well-timed hands to restart any stalled reactions). This continued all the way around the room until the final machine, which launched a foot-long styrofoam glider up into the air to the cheers of hundreds of assembled students and volunteers.

With our volunteering tasks accomplished, we caught a bus to Universal Studios to enjoy the rides and attractions at an ISEF-exclusive party before heading back to our hotel to catch some sleep (the ISEF organizers really know how to pack a day full of events!). As a final inspiring touch to our trip, we visited the finalists for a few hours Thursday morning during public exhibition day in order to learn about their projects and see some of the designs in action. The energy level in the main hall was incredible, as each individual or team clearly took pride in their accomplishment and was eager to explain the science and show off the results, even after spending a long day Wednesday giving the same explanation several times to different judges. I was thoroughly impressed by the creativity and drive of every finalist I met–these students have promising futures ahead of them! With all said and done, I came back to Santa Clara eager to continue my educational outreach volunteering with Intel, and am now even more inspired to help out with local science fairs. Thanks, Intel, for recognizing the importance of education to building our future of innovators, and for giving students from all over the world a chance to shine at Intel ISEF!

Comments are closed.