Northwest Science Expo

Every year Intel sponsors something called NWSE, which is where anyone who wants free college money for being smart competes to try and win it. The only catch is that you’ve got to do some research, and present your findings. What a drag.

Wait; there’s that minor detail that you can pretty much research whatever you want. As the old saying goes, “whatever you do, do it well”; so as long as you’ve done some legit work you’ve got a shot at winning. Nice.

This year’s data isn’t out yet, but last year’s statistics are pretty impressive: over 650 students competed with over 500 projects (some on teams). A total of 293 people won some kind of award, and the total amount of prize money given out was $262,000. There’s good money in this.

The 2011 NWSE was just held on campus at PSU, and the place was packed. There were so many booths that getting around was impossible, and there were some pretty awesome projects. A few titles I snagged while I was there:

  • A Creative Solution for Divisions by Zero
  • The Effect of Bilingualism on Working Memory
  • The Anatomical Effect of Running Barefoot
  • Making Ammonium Nitrate From Chicken Litter and Hog Fuel
Image of a best in fair awardee

One thing everyone at NWSE had in common (like Shawn up there) is that they were genuinely interested in their work.

This year, there were 20-something winners of the best-in-fair award. Those folks get awarded on the spot, but also go on to a higher-up science expo. I had the chance to talk to one of the winners.

Shawn M, a 17 year old high school student, won best in fair for his work in Twitter analytics. First, he collected a huge number of geotagged tweets, and organized them by region. After that, Shawn did a thorough linguistic analysis of the content of those tweets, breaking them down into communicated emotions in each tweet.

Along with analyzing the data by time, and searching for context-specific words (ex. “Christmas” or “X-mas” during December), he pretty much got a complete emotional breakdown of the US.

Shawn took is a step further, though, when he went on to collect data on the general health of those areas, and analyzed the correlation between the emotional state of a region and its health. He found that happier areas had lower obesity rates and more loving regions had fewer cases of Diabetes, for example. Shawn is a good example of someone who used his kung fu to increase the awesome.

In the process of engineering, the first part to finding a good solution is to learn as much as you can about the problem. Computer programmers interview prospective customers and analyze already-made programs of the same type, for example, before they make their own improved version. The work Shawn did falls into a genre of its own called Behavioral/Social Science, and this can be a profession of its own—but this also falls neatly into the information-gathering phase of engineering.

One thing this guy proved to me, while I was talking to him, is that doing a lot of work (and doing it well; he had an 80-page handwritten notebook of research leading up to this project) is not very hard when you’re legitimately interested in what you’re doing.

It can be easy to be turned off by science because the classes seem ambiguous or pointless, but engineering is the art of taking those ambiguous concepts and that ambiguous knowledge and putting it to good use. Find something you’re interested in (seriously, it can be just about anything) and there’s some way you can do science with it.

And if you go to next year’s NWSE, you can win scholarships for doing science with things you like.

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