Judging Competitions Can be Rewarding

Four members share their reasons for participating in contests

6 April 2010

There’s probably no better place to meet some of the brightest young minds in engineering than at science fairs and technology competitions. And there’s no better place to find knowledgeable judges for the contests than IEEE’s membership ranks. Just ask Microsoft Corp., which in February partnered with IEEE to, among other things, seek out qualified members to serve as judges at the company’s Imagine Cup 2010 World Finals taking place 3 to 8 July in Warsaw. Students will vie there to solve some of the toughest problems facing the world by designing solutions built around software, gaming, embedded sensors, and other technologies. A variety of prizes are awarded.

“The participation of IEEE Fellows and other high-profile members in the Imagine Cup supports our initiative to highlight the contributions engineers and other technology professionals make to society,” says Cecelia Jankowski, managing director of IEEE Member and Geographic Activities. IEEE has just begun seeking out judges.

Hundreds of IEEE members judge technology competitions big and small each year. Why do they do it? Read on to see what four had to say.

Member Frank Parris, chair of the Educational Activities Committee for the IEEE Huntsville Section in Alabama, along with other section members, judges between 10 and 15 contests every year, including the North Alabama Regional and the Alabama State science and engineering fairs. Each draws 200 to 500 youngsters in grades 6 through 12 from about 40 schools. The section bestows Best in Show awards for projects in computer science, mathematics, and engineering, along with a US $100 savings bond. A degree in any one of the three areas is basically all that’s needed to be a judge.

IEEE members also serve as judges at various robotics competitions and at the National Engineers Week Future City competition, a contest for seventh- and eighth-graders who design a city of the future with an emphasis on a specific field of engineering. The project includes writing an essay, a computer simulation, and building a scale model.

Parris is an IT manager at Jacobs Engineering in Huntsville. He says he became a judge because “fostering an interest in engineering in young people is very important. The words ‘engineer’ and ‘engineering’ can sound intimating to kids but, with a little nudge, the kids realize they really do have what it takes to be an engineer.” Judging is a great way to give back to the local community and, because you are mingling with parents, teachers, and others, you get to know the public’s thoughts on science and engineering, he notes.

“And it’s a great opportunity to encourage our future workforce,” he says. “The students in those grades need the most exposure to science and engineering to help encourage them to go into those fields.”

Life Member Lou Woolley, a systems engineer, has been a judge at the Rome Science Fair in New York for several years. Winners go on to compete in regional, state, and national fairs. At first he got involved because his former employer, NYSTEC, in Rome, sponsored the Best in Show prize and asked its employees to volunteer as judges. He enjoyed it so much that he continued to serve after the company was no longer as involved.

Fairs help youngsters learn about science in a rigorous way, Woolley says. For the Rome Science Fair, some students put together a project that proved or disproved a theory. Others surveyed people about a scientific question. Woolley judged projects on 14 criteria, such as scientific knowledge, skill, and clarity of presentation.

“It’s interesting to talk to the kids and to see the vast difference in their maturity,” he says. “Some students take their projects very seriously and do an incredible job.”

Other members are involved in judging IEEE-sponsored contests such as IEEEXtreme, a 24-hour online programming challenge for teams of student members, supported by a university or IEEE student branch. Nearly 700 teams from more than 40 countries participated in last year’s competition. Students worked on 16 problems dealing with topics such as developing a program to solve a specific question, designing a small logic circuit to perform a given task or adapting an existing program to perform new functions. The teams electronically submit their solutions, which are based on C/, C++, Java, or other software.

IEEEXtreme judges play a major role because they must not only write the problems but also devise possible solutions, and then test each one. They also have to be available during the contest to answer the students’ questions and resolve technical issues that crop up. Although the contest uses a Web-based ranking system, there are some solutions the system cannot handle so it’s up to the judges to determine the score.

Member Pedro Guerreiro and Graduate Student Member Andres Koltes were two of the 15 judges for the 2009 IEEEXtreme. Guerreiro is a professor of software engineering at the Research Center for Informatics and Information Technologies in Lisbon. Koltes, who starts a Ph.D. program in September, works on embedded systems at Diehl Stiftung in Nuremburg, Germany. The conglomerate is involved with metal products, defense technology, and aircraft equipment.

The judges must be resourceful programmers and knowledgeable in various programming languages, according to Guerreiro. He has been using problem-solving contests in his own classes to make learning about software engineering more fun and challenging—which is the goal of IEEEXtreme.

“Many of our problems are abstract, and students appreciate this kind of puzzle-like way of solving problems that may be unrelated to reality,” he says.

Koltes says judges benefit from participating in competitions because “the experience you gain is very useful in developing your technical abilities and soft skills. Organizing an event of such a global scale has also boosted my international and intercultural experience, which is helpful in many professional situations.”

Science fairs and student technology competitions are always in need of judges. Check with your local IEEE section to learn of judging opportunities, or contact your regional science fair.


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