When Catherine Jaggard took over as director of the Jersey Shore Science Fair 14 years ago she only had three months to prepare and it was, she admits, a bit of a mess.
"I had heard that if they could not find a director they would be closing the door for good," she said about why she and her husband, Eddie, took it on. "My husband and I both love kids and like to make a difference."
She learned a lot that first year and every year since. Now she and her husband begin working when school starts in September, promoting the March fair and recruiting judges for the event that has grown to attract some 700 projects from students in Cape May, Atlantic, Ocean and Monmouth counties, making it the largest fair of the 13 held in the Delaware Valley region.
Henry Disston, president and director of the Delaware Valley Science Fairs Inc., said the Jersey Shore fair, held at Richard Stockton College, is among the top in the quality of the projects, with at least one Jersey Shore participant going to the international fair each year in he past few years,
But as the fair has grown, so has the need for judges. Jaggard recruits about 100 every year, but admits it is getting difficult to find enough judges to make sure every entry is given an adequate review. She makes it work with a core group, some of whom have been helping for decades. Most have a science background, working at the William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center, or teaching at Richard Stockton College, Atlantic Cape Community College or in area schools.
Rodney Guishard, an engineer and Hamilton Township committeeman has been judging for some 30 years and still enjoys how excited the students are about their projects. He and the other judges interviewed said their goal is to instill the joy of science in young people.
The one complaint of judges is that they wish they could spend more time with each entrant, which gets more difficult as more students enter.
"Some of what the older kids do is incredible," Guishard sad. "I try to let them all know how important science is, and encourage them to stay with it."
Todd Truitt, of Egg Harbor Township, said he looks for students who have done some background research, and have a project that is well designed and carried out.
"And they need to be able to communicate what they did and what they found," said Truitt, who works in the Human Factors Lab at the Tech Center and specializes in behavioral sciences. "I'll try to ask what they'd do differently if they could do it again, and I'll give some advice on how to improve."
Some judges prefer reviewing the older students, while others like the creativity of the young. All stress they are not there to criticize, but to offer advice to help them improve.
"The one big rule is don't ever make them cry," said FAA employee Jeffrey Kostiuk of Egg Harbor Township. "I always ask if they had fun and usually they say yes."
Kostiuk said he always takes the time after judging his group to walk through the entire fair.
"Some of the projects today are so advanced," he said.
"It's interesting to see what some of the younger students come up with on their own," said Ben Willem, of Galloway Township, who also works at the Human Factors Lab. "They have to take a scientific approach, but I look for a creative element."
"They can come up with some crazy ideas," said Joseph Burns, of Egg Harbor Township. "Sometimes I'll wonder why didn't I think of that."
Burns said over the last decade he's seen more interest in technology and he is thrilled that some students are interested in how video games work, and not just how to play them.
Nandini Singh of Galloway Township is an adjunct professor at Temple University and owns the Kumon center in Northfield. Her specialty is biology and she loves how smart and confident the students are when they present their projects.
"They are so motivated," she said. "It makes you feel good about them and the future."
Ferne Friedman-Berg of Egg Harbor Township took her son with her when she judged for several years, and last year he participated himself. She is thrilled that attending fostered that interest and she hopes to encourage more students. She and a couple of other Tech Center workers also visit schools in Egg Harbor Township to talk to students about how to prepare an effective science project.
Judges said the student's oral presentation is crucial since they only have time for a few minutes with each entrant.
"Flash will not win out over clarity," Friedman-Berg said. "They need to be able to explain their data quickly. Do they understand what they've done? You can always tell when parents have helped a lot."
Being a judge is also a learning experience for teachers. Sandra Palombo of Upper Township teaches eighth grade science at the Belhaven Middle School in Linwood. She started judging about eight years ago to learn more about successful projects so that she could help her students succeed. This year, 25 of her students are participating in the fair.
"It's a great way to bring new concepts into my classroom and an opportunity to network with other teachers and professionals in the field," she said.
She said the students have practiced and want to show off what they've done, so as a judge she is disappointed that she cannot spend more time with them.
Retired Stockton professor Richard Colby, a longtime judge, said he is a bit disappointed that more younger professors and teachers don't volunteer.
Still, he said, judging at its best is an opportunity to teach and learn.
"You should expect any dedicated teacher to take every opportunity to teach," he said.
Colby said he also worries that some students enter more because they are expected to, rather than because they enjoy science.
As the fair continues to grow Jaggard said she is open to any suggestions to get more judges. She said she has a strong core team that includes Stockton Dean Dennis Weiss, chief judge Rosanne Weiss, Steve Evert, Santa Cruz and her husband Eddie and she wants to make sure the fair remains successful.
"As director I am the one who will stand in front and take the complaints and take responsibility for the fair," she said. "The people behind the scenes are giving their best to make is a success."
(Anyone interested in judging can get more information on the Jersey Shore Science Fair web site at www.jssf.us)
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