My turn as a science fair judge in Italy

Yesterday I had the distinctive experience as a judge of a scientific poster session, featuring the work of Italian high school students. The session was in the main lecture hall in the Physics building at the University of Rome "Sapienza".

The students, around eighty of them, were from the Liceo Scientifico Statale Augusto Righi, a science-themed school with a long history in Rome. The session was the conclusion of an educational program with the anthropology section of the Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnographico "L. Pigorini". The program gave the students an exciting chance to work with the museum's human skeletal collections from Classical and pre-Classical contexts, testing hypotheses from historical and archaeological contexts. The poster session was the climax of the program and gave the students a chance to show what they had learned with their hands-on projects.

Students at the poster session

Students getting ready for the program

For example, one group of students examined teeth from the Bronze Age necropolis of Gricignano d'Aversa, in northern Campania. This site was a center of weaving and textiles, and women commonly used their teeth during one of the steps of threadmaking, leaving a distinctive pattern of grooved wear on them. The students studied the etiology of these grooves -- making casts of the teeth for microscopy, sexing the associated skeletons, and tabulating the results. They were able to show that only female skeletons had the distinctive pattern of wear on their teeth, and that the obvious signs of wear developed over many years, preceded by wear that was detectable only with a microscope.

Great posters in Rome

Some of the great posters on exhibit

Another of the projects did a similar comparison for men from a Classical-era coastal village. A high proportion of the men developed small growths of bone in their ear canals, called auditory exostoses. These can result from repeated exposure to cold water, an occupational hazard of diving for fish. The students were able to show the increase in exostoses with age, and confirm they were present only in men. They also got to compare the exostoses with stable isotope data from an ongoing study that is trying to open a window on diet and work occupation in Classical times.

Italian poster session!

These kinds of projects are part of the ongoing scientific work at the Pigorini museum. My friends Luca Bondioli, Alessandra Sperduti, and Paola Francesca Rossi at the Museum facilitated the program, and they were able to pick projects that were just the right level for the students. Each presented a combination of sophisticated science being done on the materials by professionals, such as electron microscopy or stable isotopes, with the osteological and dental basics that students can engage with. With this combination, they got to see the anthropology develop a picture based on testing more and more detailed hypotheses about behavior.

Alessandra Sperduti and Luca Bondioli

Alessandra Sperduti and Luca Bondioli

I was a little worried about the language barrer. As I told someone, my Italian is limited to morphology and menus. But the students did my work for me. For one thing, every poster had abstracts in Italian, English, and Latin. A couple added German or Russian!

More important to me -- every group, as it turned out, had someone with very good English, and three or four other students who got along fairly well. I got them to help by asking questions of the other group members; I gave them a real grilling on their subjects. I'd say they did very well, and the posters -- obviously with a little help -- were very professional.

Proud students at their poster

Some proud students at their poster

I got to talk to some of the parents, and had some good conversation with the director of the school. All were very proud of their students. As they should be! Some of them might have a future in this field!

I do a lot of outreach, and this program was a really unique opportunity for the students. It coupled a unique research collection with some great historical topics. There are a few other programs like this going on internationally, and I wish we could bring this kind of work to many other schools. Maybe a virtualized version of certain exercises would help, but nothing beats the engagement with real active, and interesting, science!