On Saturday, March 16, I was a judge for my school district’s region of Science Olympiads. And it was awesome. But before I discuss the particulars of my experience, I’m first going to tell you how this came to pass.
The Earth Science teacher in my school, Dina Ditrano, is the Regional Coordinator of our region’s Division B (middle school) Science Olympiad. We frequently talk science at school so she is aware of my keen interest in the various fields thereof. A few months back, she asked me if I would like to be a judge for one of the events at this tournament: Sounds of Music. The music teacher and science fan gets to judge the science of sound event? Suh-weeeet! In this event, teams of 2 students each have to construct two instruments and play a scale, a mandatory piece of music (the melody from Dvořák’s 9th Symphony) and a piece of their own choosing on said instruments. They are scored on a variety of criteria including musical, creative, and technical aspects as well their knowledge of their instruments and the physics of sound. More details can be viewed on the website. It was settled. I was in.
Naturally, leading up to the event my impostor syndrome kicked in. What do I know/remember about the physics of sound? Sure I took a class in undergrad called Tuning and Temperament (which was awesome) in which we discussed at length the mathematical relationships between different harmonics, scales of various temperaments through musical history (such as Pythagorean tuning, well temperament, and equal temperament) and saw the advantages/disadvantages thereof. I also took a research class in graduate school in which we examined the physics of sound waves, harmonic properties of various instruments, the mechanics of the ear and more. But that was ages ago (wow, way to make myself feel old…). These kids are studying this stuff now (or at least I imagined they were if they were to be participating in this event). And I’m not science teacher. And I’m not familiar with Science Olympiads. What if I blew it? And after all the hard work the kids put in, to boot!? All I could do was be as prepared as possible; do the best I can.
My Assistants – Our Future
At the event I had four high school students as assistants. Two of them were from my district (Hicksville), one was from the school district to which I went growing up (Syosset), and another from the private school hosting the event (Kellenberg).Thankfully these students were well-versed in the mechanics and rules of this event as many of them had participated in it before. They were exceptionally valuable and knowledgeable resources who certainly put a number of my anxieties at ease. And let me just say: these students were delightful. If I somehow made a wish to Zoltar Speaks to be small again, these are the types of kids I imagine I’d be friends with: musicians and geeks. The clarinetist who wants to purse a career in Bio. The singer who wants to go to college for Nanotech. (Sadly none were terribly into astronomy. To each his/her own, I guess). I was conversing with our future, and our future looked very promising. I wish you could see how their faces lit up when they discussed the beautiful specimens to be identified in the high school-level Rocks and Minerals event. All of these students were juniors, so they are at that point where they are beginning to look at colleges and think about their futures, careers, etc. I asked if any of them were on Twitter (not so we could follow each other – that would be inappropriate). Unfortunately, none of them were. I told them how invaluable it is – how they could be networking, communicating with people in their fields of interest, people who are very willing to communicate back. I told them of how I ask questions to real live astronomers, astrophysicists, and cosmologists and actually get answers. It was my desire to let them know this isn’t even the future of how things will be done – it’s the now. Needless to say, they were eager to create their accounts when they got home.
It was thrilling to see swarms of students so excited about science and competing therein. Many teams had fun designs on their T-shirts. One team had the XKCD variant on comic #208 where the figure holding beakers says, “Stand Back I’m Going To Try Science” There were jokes on shirts where one atom says it lost an electron and another asks, “Are you positive?” A team was dressed up like ninjas except instead of swords on their backs, they had meter sticks.
For my event, I saw 27 different teams. Some schools had multiple teams while others only one. A number of the instruments I saw were truly impressive both in construction and in sound. Violins and cellos. Pitched percussion instruments using PVC pipes cut to various lengths. Guitars, ukuleles and banjos. Breath-powered instruments that required blowing (flutes) and buzzing (trombones). I wish I could post pictures, but I don’t think I’m allowed to because of the possibility of designs beings stolen. Certain teams not only did a brilliant job with construction but were comprised of phenomenal musicians as well. One school’s team included a girl who constructed a Stroh Violin and a boy with a homemade guitar who played the theme from Indiana Jones. Blew. My. Mind. This young lady was quite an accomplished player. For an instant I forgot these instruments were not professionally made. I was momentarily removed from a science competition and transported to a wonderful musical performance. All I could do was sit, listen, and enjoy.
On other teams, the instruments had beautiful construction but the players were not technically proficient enough to optimally demonstrate their sonic capabilities. For example, a student made a pitched percussion instrument on which the tops were sealed with aluminum (I believe he said they were the bottoms of soda cans). When he hit the head of the pipe with his “mallet” (a spoon), he used dead strokes instead of the more technically accurate and desirable rebounding with each strike. I took a turn at a couple of hits just to see what the instrument could sound like, but I ultimately had to grade it on his performance.
It was with great dismay that I found a number of the teams that were participating were not prepared. Rather, it was more than being unprepared – they did not know the rules. They did not know they needed to submit a copy of the sheet music to be performed to the judges. They did not know that there was a piece that all teams were required to play. They did not know that they were scored differently depending on if they played a 1 octave diatonic scale, 1 octave chromatic scale, 1.5 octave diatonic, 1.5 octave chromatic, 2 octave diatonic, or 2 octave chromatic scales. Some did not know their instruments had to fit into 2-predetermined frequency ranges (essentially one low instrument and one high).
I was flabbergasted. Of course I do not the particulars of each school’s situation, or that of each team. I do not know to what extent these students had help from an adviser if at all. But the rules were given to each team’s adviser.
On a personal note, this is where my impostor syndrome actually becomes useful. I am so afraid of not being taken seriously that when I send kids to participate in the NYSSMA solo festival or the NMEA All County Music festival, I make sure they are as prepared as possible because I am afraid of how it will reflect on me and my school. I have seen students from other districts at All County festivals who clearly have not been helped with the repertoire ahead of time and therefore don’t know how their voice part goes. Some of these kids at Saturday’s competition were absolutely mortified when we told them they were going to lose points for not providing us the required musical scores, or that they had to play two duets instead of solos. I could not imagine putting my kids in that kind of situation.
Actually, I can. Two years ago I was preparing my students for NYSSMA solo festival. I suggested to one of my students to perform the song “In My Own Little Corner” from the Broadway show, Cinderella. After all, two years prior I worked with another student on that same song for the same festival, so what could possibly go wrong? Well, apparently the book with the list of accepted songs for the festival was updated during that two year period and that song was removed, thereby making my student ineligible for an actual score. Because I made an assumption (a not entirely unreasonable one at that, but an assumption nonetheless), my student lost out. I felt horrible with a capital H. I made a number of phone calls and worked it out so that my student could compete again at another school, paid for her enrollment, and worked on another song with her.
I guess it worked out in the end for my student and I learned my lesson, but these kids in this science competition do not get another shot. This was it. I can only hope that these kids relay the experience back to their teachers so that these teachers will better prepare their teams in the future.
To the Future
As I said, I was extremely pleased with the quality of students and people I saw my high school-aged assistants to be. I was also touched, as previously mentioned, by the enthusiasm with which I saw the middle schoolers participating in this science competition. The last thing to which I wish to draw your attention is the number of girls involved in this competition. I know there are plenty of issues right now with numbers of females involved in STEM-related fields. I recognize the inequalities at the academic and professional level, the difficulty of breaking into the “old boys’ clubs” and the like. But if you saw what I saw yesterday, I think you would feel a sense of hope and excitement about the future. Of my four student assistants, three were female. The majority of the competing teams I saw were female. I had a wonderful opportunity to see our collective future at this tournament. I can happily report that we are in for a brighter tomorrow. To the future!