Ellyn Enderlin is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Maine. Her research interests include glaciers, ice sheets, icebergs, and ice-ocean interactions. The photo shows Ellyn working with Gordon Hamilton, also faculty at the University of Maine, to collect GPS measurements from a helicopter in Antarctica in October 2014.
When I was in 6th grade, I distinctly remember measuring rainfall in a homemade rain gauge hanging from a tree outside of my mom's house. Although I was always interested in science and nature, I wasn't taking rainfall measurements for fun; I was working on my science fair project. Obviously it wasn't the outcome of the competition that was important to me, because I can't remember how I ranked relative to my peers, it was the execution and presentation of the project that really stand-out in my mind. In fact, this science fair project may have unconsciously inspired me to attend my undergraduate alma mater, Lehigh University, because I still remember the trip to Lehigh's campus to present my project and tour the science and engineering facilities on campus. A colleague and friend of mine also recently shared that the Science Olympiad inspired him to work hard in high school and pursue a college degree!
I was recently invited to judge a science fair organized by a friend of mine who teaches 8th-grade at a local school. Of course I was excited to give her a hand, not only as a scientist interested in seeing what today's youth can think-up for science fair projects, but as a former science fair participant looking to give back to an activity that left strong impression in my mind. The students were tasked with designing their own experiment, collecting data, making charts and graphs to display their results, and thinking of sources of error and ways to improve their projects if they could be repeated. I was really impressed with the creativity of some of the projects, which ranged from determining which type of dance requires the most energy (and is therefore best for exercise) to quantifying saturation times for flowers sitting in dyed water. Some of the kids were obviously very nervous but everyone gave great presentations and hopefully had a great learning experience.
I was really pleased that my friend also asked the science fair judges to talk about our jobs so that her students would have an idea of potential STEM careers. Although I live in an area that was carved by an ice sheet during the last ice age, many of my friend's students didn't know how glaciers form or how they influence the landscape. I showed a number of pictures and videos from my fieldwork all over the world to really give them an idea of what glacier look like, where they are currently located, and how they are studied. When I received thank-you letters in the mail from the students, I found-out that most of the kids had no idea that you could study glaciers as a college professor or even that college professors got to conduct scientific research. Overall, based on this experience, I strongly encourage other academics to take every opportunity to get involved with local teachers; you may spark someone's interest in developing a science project, motivate them to attend college, or even pursue a STEM career!