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Science fair threatened by loss of funding

Citizen Staff Writer



The seeds of the next decade’s cell phone, a cure for cancer or the solution to global warming could be germinating in the minds of the students participating in the 54th annual Southern Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair next week.

But a dramatic drop in donations could make this the last year for the event that fertilizes the growth of future scientists, supporters say.

Organizers are considering not having the fair next year or excluding its most prolific participants – the kindergarten through fifth-grade students whose projects account for more than half of those that will be on display at the Tucson Convention Center.

Ending or shrinking the science fair could nip potential scientists in the bud.

University of Arizona student Melissa Lamberton, who has worked on the Phoenix Mars Lander mission and for the UA Lunar and Planetary Lab, began competing – and winning – in the science and engineering fair while in the first grade.

“I owe my success to SARSEF,” she said. “My junior year, I designed an experiment to test whether Earth bacteria could survive on Mars. A senior engineer on the Phoenix mission, Patrick Woida, was so impressed when he judged my project that he offered me a position on the team.”

Woida’s son, Rigel, an instrument engineer at the planetary lab and lead for the Lander mission’s robotic arm camera team, said competing in the science and engineering fair was crucial in forging his career decision.

“SARSEF was my gateway to understanding what I wanted to do with my life, which direction my passion lies in, and helped me become the engineer I am today,” Rigel Woida said.

The event costs about $140,000 to run. It’s short between $50,000 and $70,000, according to Jack Johnson, a SARSEF board member and retired associate dean of science at UA.

Kathleen Bethel, director of SARSEF and principal of Los Ranchitos Elementary School, said UA offered $10,000 worth of tuition scholarships annually in the past, but will no longer be able to support the event because of budget cuts.

In the past, students could receive $40,000 to $50,000 in scholarships from various donors, but these organizations cannot afford such generosity this year, Bethel said.

Scholarship money aside, Nathaniel Fuller, a Tucson High Magnet School senior, said he is excited about this year’s fair. He has been through the rigmarole before and knows what to expect.

“My first year competing there was a guy who asked us vaguely worded questions in a stern manner and it threw us off,” Fuller said.

He said some judges are harsh critics and some baby students, but there are still others who will provide valuable feedback.

The fair also gives students an opportunity to conduct experiments they would not be able to do otherwise. Tucson High students, for example, are allowed to conduct experiments at UA, using the university’s equipment and expertise.

“It gives us a chance to research things we wouldn’t be able to at home,” said Michael Wallace, a senior at Tucson High.

Wallace’s project involves finding a bacteria capable of disintegrating plastic foam.

Fuller and Wallace are among the students competing from private, public and home schools in southern Arizona.

Of the nearly 1,400 projects in this year’s fair, 753 were done by K-5 students. Students in grades six through eight submitted 493 entries and high school students produced 124.

Students in grades 5-8 who have exceptional projects are invited to compete in the Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge. Outstanding projects done by high school students are entered in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Many students had to win their schools’ science fairs to compete in the regional fair next week.

Students at Sunnyside Unified School District’s Challenger Middle School, 100 E. Elvira Road, wrapped up the school science fair Monday.

Sixth-grader Peter Teran beat everyone at his grade level plus all the seventh- and eighth- graders.

His project was to determine at what temperature popcorn should be stored.

“At my house we would store the popcorn in the counter and it would always burn, so I wanted to find out which place was the best to store it,” Peter said.

His conclusion was that the freezer was the best place to store popcorn, adding that it came out “nice and yellow and did not burn.”

Teran, who wants to study marine biology, became interested in science when he won a science fair in third grade at Mission Manor Elementary, 600 W. Santa Rosa St.

Seventh-grader Yaritz Vasquez beat out her peers and got second overall at Challenger with her project on head circumference.

Vasquez, who wants to become a doctor, wanted to see if height or age made a difference in the circumference of a person’s head. Her conclusion was that height did not affect the size, but age did.

Alejandro Miranda, a sixth- grader, got his mom to be his guinea pig for his project on diabetes.

During the first week of his experiment, he got his mother, who has type 2 diabetes, to stick with her normal diet and exercise regimen. Her blood sugar levels, which was 246, was almost twice as high as it should be.

The next week she followed a diet her son designed and exercised three times a week. Her blood sugar level dropped to 146, which is closer to a normal range.

She has continued to follow the regimen and now has a blood sugar level of 135.

Miranda got fifth place in the sixth-grade Challenger science fair competition.

Bethel, the SARSEF director, said she and the SciEnTeK-12 Foundation, the fair’s main sponsor, are doing everything they can to make sure the event stays afloat.

“I have personally sent out 27 letters to friends and family asking for donations. I have also sent out about 100 e-mails to doctors, other science-related people and families of past winners asking for donations,” Bethel said.

She says she wants to continue to reward students with awards and scholarships for all their hard work.

“We’ve talked to scientists about how if they hadn’t gotten started early they wouldn’t have gotten hooked,” Bethel said.

She asks them to think of what will happen to the Tucson community and the scientific community without this science fair.

“Who’s going to be our doctors? Who’s going to be the ones who develop the fuel efficient cars?” Bethel asked.

“They’re our future work force.”

Regional science fair at TCC next week; donations will determine whether it’s event’s last year

If you go

What: Southern Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair

Where: Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave.

When: Monday to Friday

Project setup – Noon to 8 p.m. Monday

Judging – Tuesday

Open to the public – 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday

Elementary school award ceremony – 6:30 p.m. Thursday

Middle school and high school award ceremony – 6:30 p.m. Friday

Visit www.sarsef.org for more information, to donate or to volunteer.

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