Science Fair — An unexpected gift

Jasminka Criley, MD
Jasminka Criley, MD

President & CEO of Indelible Learning
Associate Clinical Professor in Medicine, UCLA

Dr. Criley (left) and Naomi Kao (right) stand beside Naomi's project on hand hygiene training for elementary school students.

“Thank you so much for taking time today and judging,” yet another person said as they approached me and smiled or shook my hand.

“You are welcome,” I said and smiled. It was my pleasure. My genuine internal pleasure.

I have been volunteering for schools and children’s education for many many years.

As I agreed yet again to be a judge, I thought I was helping them: schools, students, the school district… It turned out, at the end of the day, they were actually helping me.

After almost a 12-hour day, I came back home. I was tired. My brain was tired, but my heart was full.

It all started with an email, and another email, and text from a colleague a while back, asking me if I could assist this year again. With many other obligations, it was hard to take the whole day off to volunteer. I took a deep breath and knew in my heart I would somehow make it happen. It was important. I said yes.

The day was beautiful. It was wonderful to see many familiar faces, some of which I had not seen for a long time. The presentation hall was full of scientific posters on a staggering array of topics. After a continental breakfast, judges’ orientation and introductions, the official Science Fair and judging began. Students did a great job presenting. We asked tough questions. They gave good answers. They were kind, eloquent, professional, and knowledgeable.

Some of them were mere high school freshmen. It was a long but intellectually satisfying day to see these students, and all their hard work. My heart was full.

With all this creativity, critical thinking, and hard work we, as a nation, should be in good hands as these students go out and build their careers. Some of them might flourish into great scientists and inventors, and perhaps more importantly, great and kind human beings.

One was a high school senior whom we mentored for her research project. She was happy, radiant, and professional, and did an amazing job presenting. In addition to the poster, printouts of the abstracts, lab book and the binders, she had the foresight to bring the Chromebook to demonstrate the learning game she was evaluating. Attendees to her project were very engaged, taking turns to try the game for themselves. I was very proud of her.

As I ran into other attendees later in the afternoon, teachers, organizers, school board members, and others, were effusive in their thanks, giving me the impression, I was helping them. They were grateful for my time and expertise.

Then, unexpectedly, I ran into another one of our former GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) student: I learned he went to ISEF the prior year, and had just committed to attending Stanford. His ingenuity blew my mind: he invented an automated CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) machine! All on his own. Wow.

Then I met another student: she was doing lab research at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, and fondly remembered our GATE classes. “Those were great!” she said.

Then, there was another former student of ours: “Dr. Criley, your classes were the best!” And another one: “I loved your classes!”

I looked at these beautiful young faces feeling like I reunited with a long forgotten relative or a friend. These kids were sometimes too smart or too quirky, or extremely curious, or too quiet, or too loud, or too critical or too nice and polite. I remember them all, all too well. Some took a few courses, while many others took every single course we offered. There was always something endearing about each one of them. As I looked at their faces, I still could recognize that little person they once were, years ago. I can see them sitting at that bench, thinking quietly (or often out loud), as they puzzled through a conundrum. Then, the look of astonishment, when something clicked, and their world just grew bigger.

I could not suppress a big grin of happiness. My face was smiling, and so was my heart. I remembered how we challenged them. And pushed their intellects. We made them think and solve mysteries. They were young detectives who discovered unexpected connections relevant to real life.

They were allowed to think out of the box. And be different. We welcomed any questions that occurred to them. We encouraged them to be who they are. We supported them in who they were. We loved them for who they were. Many of them felt validated, for the first time. And they kept coming back.

What a wonderful feeling, to see them grow and flourish into young adults. The more I ran into former students, the more I realized that, for some of them, we had made a great impact.

I knew it then. I realized it even more at this very moment.

As I returned to see the poster of our research student, I was ambushed by a group of fifth graders. I looked at them: no more nor less, these were our current GATE students!

“What are you doing here?” I exclaimed with a beaming smile.

“Mr. Criley told us that Naomi could not TA the class yesterday, because she had a poster to set up for the Science Fair,” one of them explained chirpily. “So, our mom brought us here so we can see her poster and her research!”

After all these wonderful emotional gifts I had already received today, this one was an unexpected icing on already astonishingly beautiful cake. I did not see this coming.

I was speechless as our current GATE students shared their happiness to be in our classes. They asked about Mr. Criley. They adore him. “He is so smart. And so nice!” they exclaimed. They were enthusiastic. Despite being just nine or ten, their language was mature, their questions sophisticated, as was their curiosity for science research, curiosity for how the research was done, curiosity for how to build a learning game, curiosity for building healthy habits. They displayed unabashed curiosity for learning more, participating more, being more.

I took a deep breath. This, right here. Hope it stays that way.

I hope their passion for learning never dims.

As the event wound down, I continued to run into a number of kind people who were thanking me.

All of a sudden, I did not know why they were thanking me.

I waited for Naomi to get her poster down. We walked to our cars: “Dr. Criley, thank you for everything you have done for me.”

“You are very welcome. Congratulations for all your hard work. I am looking forward to seeing what happens next!”

I truly am.

My husband, our twin boys, and I dedicated 14 years making a difference in some of these young people minds. We gave abundantly from our time, knowledge, experience and passion for teaching, mentoring, and enriching young minds.

Today, after all these years, it affected me to the very core.

It was all worth it. I felt grateful, thankful, appreciated.

It is in giving that we receive the most.

Today, that has proven to be true. Another day of true happiness.