In May 2014, I volunteered as a Mandarin Chinese interpreter at Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which took place at the Los Angeles Convention Center. ISEF is a high school level research competition, with more than 1,700 students representing 70 countries competing this year. The competition is segmented into 17 categories, including animal sciences, biochemistry, mathematical sciences, materials engineering, computer science, etc. Finalists from ISEF compete for various prizes, ranging from monetary awards to a visit to CERN labs in Switzerland.
Interpreting Mandarin Chinese was a one-day event, but I was fortunate to be participating with ISEF for three days total to observe the factors which motivate high school students to remain engaged in the sciences, as well as explore the research opportunities at the high school level.
The opening ceremony of ISEF presented itself with a vibrant, energetic atmosphere dedicated towards celebrating science. All participants were encouraged to post their experience on social media with #intelISEF…so inevitably, Brian proceeded to post our pictures on Twitter. Although I was seated towards the back of an incredibly large auditorium, a large screen at the front allowed me to watch the activity updates while the beats of heavy music played. The audience guessed what portrait of a famous scientist was born from splashes of paint that an artist spattered onto a wall. Eyewriter and 3D prosthetic arms for individuals with physical disabilities—creations of Mick Ebeling, founder of Not Impossible Labs—were introduced with an inspiring film clip and speech. My personal favorite part of the ceremony was when each of the participating countries was introduced to the stage one by one, Olympics style. This kind of introduction was a perfect set-up towards making an incredibly friendly and open environment for competition—although science is a competitive field, there is always room to make it inviting towards those who are interested.
Although I was not signed up as a volunteer this day, I was keen on exploring an open area on the first floor of the Convention Center. This area was a small technology hub, where students could hang out on large, comfy cushions and meet other students. Available entertainment included playing games on tablets, watching a demo of a snake pendulum in- action, as well as posting their answers to thought-provoking questions on a wall. I played an interactive game, where one rolled a large ball to guide a football through goalposts on screen. The cozy space was a great spot for students to rest from the hectic activities of the day, as well as make new friends with students from various backgrounds.
The afternoon featured a guest panel of five Nobel Laureates and one Draper Prize winner, who answered questions from students such as: “What struggles did you go through growing up?”, “What principles do you live by?”, and “What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your work?” If students were to seriously pursue the sciences, they still have quite the journey ahead of them—but having a panel of respected scientists honestly answering their questions could serve as a source of inspiration and encouragement. Allowing students to think critically in research projects in high school now is a head start for their endeavors in college and beyond.
Although my actual volunteer day started early at 7 am, it started off on a positive note since I ran into an old coworker from my teaching assistant internship at the National Taiwan Science Education Centre (NTSEC) last summer. Because interpreters are assigned to teams at random, I was thrilled that I was assigned to be an interpreter for a team that NTSEC sent to ISEF this year. Since my internship at NTSEC was so enriching and rewarding last summer, I enjoy giving back to NTSEC in any way I can.
Throughout the day, I worked with juniors Yu-Chen and Pin-Hsin, who had worked diligently in a biochemistry lab at National Taiwan University the entirety of their school year to identify which critical amino acids of Helicobacter pylori virulence factor GroES induces an inflammatory response. As judges came to Yu-Chen and Pin-Hsin’s booth to ask questions about their work, I was primarily there to make sure that both questions and responses were understood well by both sides (but honestly, had I not been there, I think Yu-Chen and Pin-Hsin still would have done fabulously!) As they explained their work repeatedly to the judges who stopped by, I too became more informed about Yu-Chen and Pin-Hsin’s methodology and conclusions in their project. Although Yu-Chen and Pin-Hsin are going to put research aside as they focus on college exams, they hope to return back to a laboratory setting back in college. While waiting for the judges, I also learned that Yu-Chen and Pin-Hsin were part of a class in high school that not only allowed them to become involved in research, but also encouraged them to compete at the Taiwan national level.
A large part of community engagement is learning from the community that you give to. I felt that volunteering at ISEF was only a small aspect of my time there. Being involved in STEM education is not primarily limited to teaching in a traditional classroom, as there are alternative ways to learning science in more hands-on ways. As a STEM major interested in alternative education in the sciences, this was a great place for me to observe what keeps kids engaged in science and research. Clearly, high school students are smart and capable of critical thinking skills required to complete research projects—but encouragement from respected role models and self-confidence are key towards engaging students further. ISEF created a safe space conducive for young scientists to network and communicate with others like themselves, as well as take pride in contributing to the field of science.