Steven Jacobs is an accomplished scientist, educator, author, and media personality, but his creative involvement in the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge is perhaps his most beloved role. Affectionately dubbed "Judge Jake" by finalists, he has built a career of making science fun and accessible.
With three university degrees, nearly two decades of teaching, and experience with Nickelodeon, Paramount Television, FOX Television, Disney, National Public Radio (NPR), and the Smithsonian Institution under his belt, Jake was an ideal fit as consultant and judge for the Young Scientist Challenge when it kicked off in 1999. "I find that often kids get very enthusiastic … when it comes to learning the scientific method of thinking. I was excited to learn that the Young Scientist Challenge drew young scientists from all over the US," he says.
For months leading up to Finalist Week in October of each year, Jake works closely with the Discovery team to create, test, and validate dynamic scientific challenges for finalists to execute in Washington, D.C. From building a rocket car to identifying paramecium, the unique challenges are exciting endeavors. All challenges follow national curriculum standards and are carefully planned to measure specific scientific skills and meet predefined judging criteria.
Because finalists spend two jam-packed days competing in challenges, it can be a nerve-wracking experience. One of Jake's favorite parts of the YSC is the "downtime" he spends with kids and scientists between challenges. Armed with his bag of science tricks—thought-provoking science experiments he calls â€śwhelmersâ€ť—Jake's activities are designed to awe and inspire, "not overwhelm folks, but whelm them or spark their curiosity."
When it's time to wear his "judge hat," Jake and a panel of judges are tasked with evaluating each finalist's scientific communication skills, understanding of the scientific process, teamwork ability and actual performance in challenges. In a pool of such highly skilled and competent students, choosing the top winner can be a difficult undertaking, but Jake says it always comes down to finalists who "possess the ability to inspire and inform others of the delights of scientific discovery."
However, in the end, every finalist emerges a winner. "It's so good to see young people who have not only worked so hard to get to the finals, but also have a real love for science learning—something that doesn't change whether they win or not," remarks Jake. So far, Jake's own love of science has inspired 360 finalists… and counting!