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Annual science fair marks 20 years

This year's event to be biggest and best

Posted: March 1, 2013 - 1:01am

There are few episodes in the school year when the streams of real-world learning and “school-world” learning come together; the Southeast Alaska Regional Science Fair, scheduled for Saturday, March 9, is one of those.

This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the fair and will be the largest ever held in Juneau, with more than 200 expected student participants. In addition to those participating from three of Juneau’s high schools, applications have also come in from students in Sitka, Skagway, Angoon, Petersburg, and this year for the first time, Whale Pass. They will be presenting their hard work on chosen topics to a panel of volunteer judges and will be competing to see who advances to various national and international competitions across the country. Overall winners will advance to the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Ariz., in May.

They are also competing for a series of national and regional awards given by scientific agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Forest Service, National Society of Professional Engineers, U.S. Department of Health, and the research arms of the Army, Navy and Air Force. In addition, a whole series of awards are offered by a network of local businesses, each looking for projects that focus on the field they support. Many of these entrants will go home with prize money, gift certificates for science tools and toys, food, and many others. One student typically wins a four-year college scholarship to the University of Alaska Southeast, in addition to other smaller tuition waivers.

All of the competitors walk away from the event with an experience that empowers them as active learners and expands their self confidence by allowing them to experience how scientific data is actually acquired. The students chose their topics and develop their projects in collaboration with a mentor who guides them through the project over several months.

Students will display their projects from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the Marie-Drake Gymnasium on Saturday, March 9, at an open-house session. All are invited to attend.

Some student projects have collected sea snails and measured their shell thickness as indicators of ocean acidification; others investigated tree trunk growth to see whether direction of hill slope influenced rate of growth; yet others craftily observed which color of chair was chosen during interviews. Some analyzed tree cover, measured pea growth or built liquid fuel cannons. A group of students have collected the genetic information from wild plants and traced the process of local evolution, of how life forms adapt to individual environments. The spectrum of projects is as wide as the interests of the student scientists.

This year the fair will have a special event in collaboration with the Friends of the Marie-Drake Planetarium, at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 8. Astronomer and Night Sky Photographer Dennis Mammana will be presenting a public program, “The World at Night” at the planetarium, which is located adjacent to the science fair display room. Students under 18 are free to attend; there is a nominal charge for adults. Preceding this show, at 5:30 p.m., judge training sessions will be offered to those interested in helping to judge projects at the fair on Saturday morning from 8-11 a.m.

Scientists and non-scientists are needed to help judge, due to the large size of the fair this year. It is important that every student gets interviewed by multiple adults and gets constructive feedback. A degree in science is not required to judge, just the ability to think through the steps of the project in a logical manner and understand the basics of the scientific method. All judges will need to attend one of the judge training sessions, either at 5:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. on Friday, March 8, or at 7 a.m. Saturday, March 9 in the Marie-Drake gymnasium.

This entire event rests on the shoulders of local volunteers, the individuals who serve as mentors to each student, those who help judge the projects and those who support the event as host families, event staffers, prize donors and financial contributors. These stalwart supporters make the whole process possible, and they relish it. The satisfaction of seeing the room filled with eager young researchers presenting their work is so delightful that, once engaged, many volunteers return for years.

This year’s bumper crop of participants means that the need for support from the adult community is greater than ever before. The organization needs places for traveling students to stay, people that will help judge and provide encouragement to the contestants. They also need financial support, in that there are no local school funds spent in this event. The Juneau school district does not pay for any of the fair costs except donating the use of the space in the Marie-Drake Gymnasium.

To judge at the fair, volunteer to house visiting students, assist with the hospitality arrangements, contribute to the fair, or for general info, please contact Fair Director Lawrence Schaufler by email at Lawrence.Schaufler@noaa.gov, or by phone at 209-8000. Information is also available on the website at http://www.seakrsf.org.

This is an opportunity to contribute to the future of the young people of our Southeast Alaska communities, and to experience the thrill of discovery.

• David Lendrum is a long-time Juneau resident.

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