Graduate students vie for top prizes in science fair with a twist
“Ew, can I touch it?” Most judges asked this last month when they saw Morgan Freeman, a rat snake Jeff Anderson brought for his presentation at Flip the Fair, a science fair with a twist at the Melrose Branch Library in Roanoke.
Other presentations also drew feedback from the judges that was equal amounts genuine curiosity and brutal honesty.
“They talked too fast, but they were good at explaining it.”
“What made you want to become a researcher?”
“Why don’t you get Taylor Swift to make some bottled water and then sell that?”
These were exactly the kinds of responses the Virginia Tech graduate students were hoping to get. These science fair judges were all elementary school students.
Representing four colleges, six departments, and the Graduate School’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Programs, presenters summarized their research in three to five minutes to nearly 200 fifth graders from the Roanoke City Public Schools. The fifth grade students were encouraged to ask questions before judging the graduate students on their hypothesis, methods, results, and poster appearance.
"We wanted to give the elementary students an opportunity to engage with real scientists and, through those interactions, possibly see themselves in that same role doing research they may not have known about before this event," said Amanda Hensley, one of the organizers and a Ph.D. candidate in the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.
By the students for the students
Organized by graduate students for elementary students, Flip the Fair began last year as a pilot program intended as a professional development opportunity for graduate-level researchers to gain confidence in their presentation skills.
Hensley, who is also an affiliate graduate fellow of the Global Change Center, worked at the Main Branch of the Roanoke Public Libraries while earning her master’s degree in health care administration. During this time, she learned about the library’s outreach programs, such as Star City Reads, Feed and Read, STEAM Power Hour, and Level UP.
“I found that the libraries were not just buildings housing books and other media, but they were also community hubs with the ability and capacity to direct those in need to resources,” said Hensley. “I knew that if Roanoke Public Libraries was our partner, we would have additional resources and support from an experienced and creative team of librarians, namely Amber Lowery and Jeffrey Wood.”
Many graduate students volunteered to help lead the groups of student judges around the library to view the presentations.
“It’s interesting to let them talk among themselves when deciding what to score each presenter. They never argued about different opinions and were easily willing to compromise on a score,” said Jenn Hammel, a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute who presented last year. “They make some of the most surprising connections.”
For the first year, the judges were recruited from regular library patrons in the third to fifth grades. This year, Hensley also collaborated with the Roanoke City Public Schools, specifically Supervisor of Science Tom Fitzpatrick.
“Roanoke City is an urban school district, and one of the challenges is for our students to see themselves in a successful light outside the norm,” Fitzpatrick said. “This is a neat exposure for the kids to see what this [a science fair] might look like and to be on the other side, not explaining the project, but the one asking questions and somebody else is defending their work.”
Three nearby Title I elementary schools — Fairview, Hurt Park, and Roanoke Academy for Math and Science — participated in the event.
“All three of them are fairly high-poverty schools, and all three of their principals were on board and reached out to their teachers,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’m hoping it will give the kids some confidence. There is no pressure on the students except to try to ask good questions and make an informed decision, which is something we work on with the students.”
Winners all around
Students who attended the unique science fair, as well as their teachers, received an assortment of goodies donated by many of the program sponsors.
“What I like about this is that it is all graduate students,” said Carrie Kroehler, associate director of the Center for Communicating Science. “They are fully responsible for this and they are providing great leadership.”
To help the graduate students with their presentations, the Center for Communicating Science, which is part of Virginia Tech's Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment and one of the sponsors, held a workshop prior to the event. Led by Sarah Yorke, post-Master of Fine Arts fellow, and Shanon Weaver, instructor in applied performance, the graduate research presenters were guided through a series of physical and vocal warm-ups before sharing summaries of their research to different partners.
“Now I feel confident about talking about my research to people, but it took me three years to get here,” said Prashasti Agarwal, a Ph.D. candidate in microbial ecology in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. “It was a huge learning process with a lot of visuals.”
According to Hensley, the most important criteria for success is whether the presenters felt they gained experience in communicating their research, the teachers found value in the experience for their students, and the children felt empowered as judges while learning about various research.
“I’ve never done anything like this before — not since elementary school,” said Prescott Vayda, a Ph.D. student in paleobiology and geobiology in the College of Science who brought some million-year-old rocks to show the judges.
Additional sponsors of the event included Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, Student Outreach Program at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Office of Inclusion and Diversity, the Graduate School, the College of Science, and the Department of Biological Sciences.
- Prashasti Agarwal, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, "Rooting for the Micro-Guys"
- Raffae Ahmad, Department of Biological Engineering and Mechanics, "Eliminating Harmful Bacteria inside Cancer with Electricity and Antibiotics"
- Jeff Anderson Jr., Department of Biological Sciences, "As Above so Below: Do Snakes Eat Different in Trees vs. the Ground?"
- Emma Bueren, biological sciences, "Friendly Phage in Frogs: Are All Viruses Bad?"
- Catie Burgess, Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Program Graduate Program (TBMH), "Tracking Disease Spread through Cattle Markets with Sample Pooling"
- Ya-Yun Chen, Department of Psychology, "How Being in Sync with Your Parents and Good Sleep Make You Feel and Learn Better"
- Claudia Clinchard, psychology, "Emotions and the Brain"
- Haylee Downey, TBMH, "Finding Ways to Help People Drink Fewer Sugary Drinks"
- Mary Frazier, TBMH, "Motivating Movement and Connection among Cancer Survivors"
- Martha Gizaw, biomedical engineering and mechanics, "Impacts of Driving Long Distances"
- Nora Heitzman-Breen, Department of Mathematics, "Infectious Disease by Numbers"
- Emma Leslie, TBMH, "Junk Food, Eating Habits, and the Brain"
- Morgan Lindenmuth, psychology, "Emotions and the Brain"
- James May, Department of Biomedical and Veterinary Sciences, "Dogs, Humans, and Disease; How Our Pets are Saving the World"
- Jennifer Phillips, psychology, "Moms, Kids, and the Quest for Good Behavior"
- Kelsey Reed, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, "Plant Regeneration: To Cell and Back"
- Alexia Stettinius, biomedical engineering and mechanics, "Bubbles Kill Cancer"
- Sai Navya Vadlamudi, biomedical and veterinary sciences, "Is it Possible to Diagnose Cancer with a Blood Test?"
- Prescott Vayda, Department of Geosciences, "Who Was Earth’s Oldest Mineral Collector?"
- Paige Van de Vuurst, TBMH, "Rabies Suck: Vampire Bats and Why They Matter"