Skip the county fair, visit the science fair: Science Fair Season, by Judy Dutton

November 30, 2020 Adam Sell

Skip the county fair, visit the science fair: Science Fair Season, by Judy Dutton
By Adam Sell

The Bot Book Review is an occasional series of short reviews of robot-themed books as written by White Ops team members.

Quick: think about your friends from college, or even those you’ve known longer than that. How many of them are doing for a living what they hoped to be doing for a living when you were young?

If I asked around the table at my Friendsgiving celebration (in 2019; I know better than to have gathered in 2020), the percentage of people who were doing what they planned to do early in life would be exceptionally low. To a degree, I’m part of that low percentage: I discovered an interest in and knack for writing sometime in high school and have parlayed that into where I am today. But I myself went through some phases of career interests - briefly considering a career as a geneticist (I would have been terrible at it - too impatient).

But the one career path I fixated on for the longest time before discovering it wouldn’t have worked out was as a college admissions officer. There was this one book, The Gatekeepers, that so romanticized the role that I found myself wanting to do that sort of work. There’s still a small part of me that wonders whether I might be good at it sometime in the future, after I’ve retired from the high-tech marketing roulette.

I bring up that book and that experience only as it’s my best reference point for how I felt about science fairs following Science Fair Season, by Judy Dutton. I was not a science fair participant, at least not after the mandatory fifth grade science fair. (I made a little solar oven with aluminum foil and tried to cook pizza bagels in my driveway [it didn’t really work].) But in reading this particular book, I wondered whether I’d missed out on the opportunities that I presume existed to do more interesting research and stuff when I was still a student.

The cover of this book promised more robot-centric content than I ended up getting, as it turned out. Dutton profiled a series of students who competed in an especially high-profile national science fair, and only one of those stories focused on a student who created a robot. And it was a compelling robot story, don’t get me wrong, but my library’s search function may have been a little too aggressive in labeling this as a robot book.

That said, the projects that the kids in this book developed were astonishing. One explored the role horses can play in managing and treating PTSD. Another used music to find a mechanism for communication with people with autism, for whom communication through traditional channels may be difficult or impossible.

And while many of the kids featured came from privileged backgrounds that afforded them opportunities to excel not shared by the general public, some of the featured stories zeroed in on students who didn’t have much to begin with. An indigenous kid developed a home-heating system using only the resources available to him on the reservation on which he and his family lived. A girl recently diagnosed with an ancient disease brought new attention to treatment methods for it in an effort to destigmatize sufferers. And a kid in juvenile detention found the one teacher who was willing to work closely with him to develop a burgeoning interest in astronomy.

My one major gripe was on what amounted to a sense of product placement. The titular science fair was sponsored by a major microchip developer, and by the tenth story, it felt as though either the company or the book’s publisher compelled Dutton to include the company’s name at every possible opportunity. As a marketer, I understand the importance of the branding and reinforcement. As a reader, it was jarring and frustrating to encounter it so frequently.

This was the first nonfiction book I’ve reviewed for this Bot Book Review initiative, I have a number of others in the queue, the majority of which should have a great deal more actual robot content than this or my previous review (The World Doesn’t Require You) featured. Perhaps Mr. Claus will grant me a better-curated list of robot-themed books than I myself have been able to create.

Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch . . . and What It Takes to Win
By Judy Dutton

Bot Book Review Rating: 3/5 stars

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