It’s Your Turn to Change the World: Google Science Fair 2014

It’s your turn to change the world, and the 2014 Google Science Fair (GSF) is your next chance to get started. Once again, National Geographic is helping to make this worldwide search for the next generation of great scientists a thrilling and enlightening reality.  In year’s past these future explorers have tackled some of the world’s greatest challenges, like an anti-flu medicine, an exoskeletal glove, a battery-free flashlightbanana bioplastics and more efficient ways of farming.

The Grand Prize includes an National Geographic Expedition to the Galapagos. Brittany Wenger, winner of the 2012 Google Science Fair, documented her trip with National Geographic to the Galapagos last year. Other prizes come from GSF partner’s Scientific AmericanLego, and Virgin Galactic.

Finalists will be narrowed down to 90 regional finalists in June.  Then, in August,15 Global Finalists will join us at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, CA for the finalist event where all the finalists will exhibit their projects and the Grand Prize winner will be named..

Other events in the lead-up to the finals include a Google+ Hangout with NG Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle on Friday, Feb. 14 at 10am PT.
TH Culhane interviews a competitor during the 2013 Google Science Fair. (Photo by Andrew Federman)
TH Culhane interviews a competitor during the 2013 Google Science Fair. (Photo by Andrew Federman)

For the fourth consecutive year, National Geographic Explorer TH Culhane sits on the panel of world-renowned judges. To give you a window into his side of the action, he answered the following questions for us:

1.    As a returning judge for the fourth year in a row, what is your favorite part of the GSF so far?

Being back for the fourth year in a row makes me feel like I’ve actually been through high school with these incredible young men and women, as if I were their teacher/mentor in a virtual “Google Science Academy” that also has this great real-world graduation ceremony at the end of every year. The only big difference is that the science fair judging time isn’t so much a graduation as “a new hope”, a beginning … an induction into this super-friends league of life-longer learners. It delights me to meet, the annual fresh crop of real-life students that I can get to get to know and share ideas with and it double delights me to then have the joy of being able to follow up with students from past classes, who I continue to keep in touch with through social media.  I’m a “big picture” guy whose greatest joy as a member of the National Geographic Explorers Team has been taking the “innovation challenge” to work with explorers outside my field and see how we can “put the puzzle together” to make holistic improvements immeasurably better than what we can do alone. My favorite part of the GSF is being able to help articulate such connections among the growing team of Science Fair finalists, who are so excited about working together to solve big world problems. We get a chance to nurture that natural cooperative instinct in young scientists wanting to contribute to a better society and that is what brings me back every year.


2.    If you could submit a project to the GSF (sorry, unfortunately, you don’t fall into any of the age categories) what would be the general topic?

The creation of what John Lennon (who first arrived in the US with the Beatles 50 years ago this week!) a “Nutopia” — a holistic experimental prototype community of tomorrow (Disney’s vision was called “EPCOT — an experimental prototype community of tomorrow), or a “systems integration project in industrial ecology” demonstrating how the whole could be greater than the some of its parts if we engaged young people in “systems thinking”.   We haven’t yet offered young people such a challenge, we haven’t endorsed the “permaculture” or “sustainability” model as a topic with the importance it deserves so as a society we are still getting isolated sparks of genius that don’t always mesh with one another comfortably when real world application is attempted.  Since the challenge involves integration it would also make individuals and teams come together over the topic, at a worldwide  and participation that Google tools have recently made available to the whole world.

The winners of the 2013 Google Science Fair: Viney Kumar (Australia), Ann Makosinski (Canada), Elif Bilgin (Turkey), and Eric Chen (USA). (Photo by Andrew Federman)
The winners of the 2013 Google Science Fair: Viney Kumar (Australia), Ann Makosinski (Canada), Elif Bilgin (Turkey), and Eric Chen (USA). (Photo by Andrew Federman)


3. Why do you think the GSF is important in today’s world?

Science and the scientific process are poorly understood by most of society, and cultural stereotypes of “the lone inventor”, “the isolated genius”,  “the mad scientist”, or the socially awkward “nerd”. All of this with emphasis on the competitive nature of “award winning” and “distinction” and “prizes”  have obscured the intensely cooperative and highly social nature of innovation..The GSF gives awards and rewards excellence, but the awards often go to teams of young people as individuals, and these young people cross the spectrum in gender, age, economic level, ideology and nationality. What unites them all is “good science”.  The “end” of the judging process is just the beginning of a lifelong journey for ALL the finalists — everybody goes home a winner in one way or another, most particularly by becoming  a member of the larger team.   The GSF process rewards both excellent outcomes and excellent methods, giving its largest prizes to those who can make most effective use of the awards immediately to further the important research being done, but committing to build on its investment in all of the finalists.   The GSF sends the message “we will keep the beacon of enlightenment shining, and all of you have a place and a voice in ‘The Great Conversation’ that Stephen Hawking (“All we have to do is keep on talking”)  and Carl Sagan (“Science is a candle in the dark”)  and other great scientists urged us to keep having to keep the darkness at bay.  The GSF is not just about post facto rewards for current student achievements but a commitment to build capacity for our common future.


4. Rumor has it, there were some injuries sustained while sumo wrestling with some of the other GSF judges during last year’s finalist event. What is it like inside the judging room, sitting around a table with some of the world’s most well known scientists?

Besides sustaining a broken rib, “rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”   But the story of the sumo wrestling is metaphoric — we judges are a joyfully competitive and playfully cooperative lot who will “go to the mat” with our ideas and values, regardless of our relative “weight” in terms of achievements. There is tremendous respect for everyone in the room by everyone in the room, and we are brought together to create a better “ecology of being” that can best represent our goal of improving science to meet 21st century challenges.  What makes judging a great event for me is that the Fair truly is FAIR.  We, as scientists and citizens, play by agreed upon rules and we don’t take things personally.  There is no personal winning or losing in the judging process, though everybody has their favorite projects at one time or another.  As scientists we want to see the projects most suited for immediate recognition and support emerge. In the judging room, through the intensity and ferment, the over-riding emotion is the fascination and satisfaction of watching good methodology do its job and the relish of contributing your best ideas to that method. This is one thing I’ve learned from sitting at a table with some of the world’s most well known scientists— we acknowledge our humanity, our personal biases and our systematic errors, as they are all part of the full equation. But we defer to the best fit model that, at the end of the day, let’s us choose our “winners” in a just and mutually satisfying manner.  The judging process itself is an example of science in practical action.

The GSF is a global online competition open to students from 13 to 18 years of age. So what do you want to change? Need help coming up with an idea? Use the GSF’s Idea Springboard to come up with a project that you’ll love working on.  We can’t wait to see what this year’s science fair brings!



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