Brogan Holcombe explains the black bear diet to Lunden McCall, 10, a fifth grader at Fishburn Park Elementary in Roanoke. Holcombe received the highest total score from the child judges for "How clear and well-designed were the presenter’s methods (how they did the experiment)?" Photo by Randy Walker.

Jeffery Anderson, a Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate, agreed to present his research to elementary students. Problem was, his subject is a bit, well, graphic.

“My research looks at the biomechanical challenges that arboreal [tree-dwelling] reptiles face during feeding events,” he said. “So my research can be a tad scary and messy. When I said messy, I was referring to the visceral imagery of reptiles eating animals alive.”

For ideas, he consulted his fiance, a Montessori educator. In addition, “I thought about what I liked when I was in elementary school and how I could merge those affinities with my research. Luckily, I was able to find pictures that weren’t too scary/gory and was awarded ‘prettiest poster’.”

Anderson was one of 28 Virginia Tech Ph.D. and master’s students who participated in Flip the Fair, a science fair with an unusual twist. It was held Feb. 5 at Roanoke Public Libraries’ Melrose branch, co-sponsored by the library, Tech’s Center for Communicating Science and several other Tech groups.

“I wanted to find a form of outreach that really helped empower kids, not just teach them scientific content,” said Abigail Lewis, one of the grad student organizers. “In designing the event, we were inspired by Flipped Science Fairs that have been held at a handful of other institutions including Yale and UPenn.”

In a flipped science fair, younger students judge college-age presenters. For the Melrose event, Roanoke-areas students in grades three through five were recruited to serve as judges. A few older and younger students showed up; no one was turned away.

Coen van Montfrans, 11, is a sixth-grader at Cave Spring Middle School in Roanoke County. “I’m really into science, it’s my favorite subject,” he said. “I just thought it would be cool to learn new stuff from the posters here.”

He explained the judging protocol as he stood near a tri-fold display, clipboard in hand. “We base different questions from a scale of one to five. Like, how well did the presenter explain, or, how was their board, was it easy to read. We write if there was any other feedback, like, if they could have done something better, or if this part was perfect.

“This last one that I did, number 16, was amazing. It was explained well. The topic was how these different proteins tell certain cells in the heart to die. I gave it five, five, five, five because it was amazing through-through and it was cool to learn new stuff from that presentation.”

In the same room of the library, Sarah Hall, a third-year Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering, stood near her display on the use of ultrasound to fight cancer. Like the other presenters she had to translate technical terms into simpler language. “As a scientist you want to use terms that you’re used to using in your day to day conversation so it’s a little bit challenging, but I like it because we’re giving the kids this knowledge and…motivation to do science, hopefully, when they grow up.”

Doctoral student Hannah Ivester got the highest score from the student judges for “How well did the presenter explain why their research question was important?”

“I like to think I had a little bit of a head start here, since my research actually focuses on the virus that causes COVID-19, so many non-science people in my family have been asking me questions for the past two years,” she said.

Some of the kids knew more than she expected. “I had stuffed versions of the virus on my table and one of the children ran in and immediately knew what it was.”

The interactive nature of the event strengthened students’ sense of involvement in STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, mathematics, Lewis said. In addition, “events like Flip the Fair can be powerful because they broaden the image of what a scientist looks like—not all scientists wear lab coats, and not all scientists look like Einstein. At our event, children got to interact one-on-one with researchers from a wide variety of backgrounds, including many female scientists and scientists from minoritized groups.”

About 50 students participated as judges. Veronica van Montfrans, mother of Coen van Montfrans, the Cave Spring Middle student, explained how the event helped her son.

“The value of an event like this for Coen is really two-fold,” she wrote in an email. “1) he gets to learn about science–a lot of science and a lot of different types of science. But also 2) he gets to meet and interact with scientists in his community. It humanizes it and makes it accessible to him. This is something he could see himself doing. That is so important when inspiring the next generation.”

Randy Walker

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was formerly a staff writer on (as it...