Saturday, March 1, 2014

Action on our Seismometer Today: Earthquake Swarm or Volcanic Harmonic Tremor? (hint: no...)

 Frankly, if we lived next to a major fault zone or an active volcano, the seismic record above on our department seismometer would be worrisome beyond measure. Earthquake after earthquake usually means very bad things, the harmonic tremor leading to a major volcanic eruption or the buildup to a huge earthquake. Fortunately, I live in the Great Valley of California and such outcomes are unlikely. No, this seismometer is recording something much more positive: Science!

Or more to the point, it's the pounding footfalls of 500 or so enthusiastic future scientists running up and down the halls of our Science Community Center competing in the annual Regional Science Olympiad. The event brought teams from several dozen junior and senior schools to compete in 24 different events designed to test the creativity and rigor of the student's education in a variety of disciplines.
The competition is as intense as any football game, and the stakes are high. The winning schools will compete in the Northern California Science Olympiad, and the winners there will compete nationally. The enthusiasm of the students is palpable, even in the "secondary" events like Rocks and Minerals and Dynamic Planet that were conducted by the members of our campus geology club. I call them "secondary" because they don't always get the attention of glamour events like the bots, helicopters, and bottle rockets. What I and the coaches know, though, is that the competition is won and lost in these events, the trenches of scientific competition.
What that means is that unlike the football quarterbacks and receivers who get called heroes for bouncing an odd-shaped ball about, is that the geeks and nerds get the recognition and appreciation of their fellow students for bringing glory and victory to their schools. And since it takes a few dozen students to put a winning team together, they share richly in the accolades. That quiet kid in the back of the classroom who never says much but always has a few minerals in his or her backpack and a book on geology can be the winner of an event that puts their school over the top. He or she will never forget the moment.

And the best part? When they go on, they won't reach middle age with bad knees and constantly sore backs with faded memories of glory on the athletic fields. They will instead be the real heroes of society, being the doctors and scientists who bring about positive change in the world.
And that's not all. There are other heroes...there are the coaches and volunteers who put these teams together at the different schools and organize and train the students. There are the event judges, volunteers all, who design and conduct the various events. There are dozens and dozens of volunteers from the community who support the judges. Our county board of education has to be commended for their ongoing support of the program, which has now extended over decades without a break. All in all, there are hundreds of people coming together to support the concept of science education in our community.
There was one more star today as well. As my usual readers know, we only recently opened up our Science Community Center at Modesto Junior College for operations, a wonderful facility that has modern laboratories, a museum, an observatory, and one of the finest planetariums in the country. This incredible learning center happened because our community decided to support science education with the passage of a bond act that paid for it. This was no state program, or national initiative. It was the decision of the people in our community, one of the poorest in the nation, to make things better for their children.
So yes, there were earthquakes today. It was the pounding of hundreds of feet of students who may have a better future because their community insisted on it. Modesto and Stanislaus County can be proud of what they've accomplished.

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