In the 1950s, it was Sputnik. In the 2010s, it’s science fairs. Both are symbols of America losing its competitive edge.
Both President Obama and the New York Times have weighed in on the declining numbers of, and interest in, science fairs — those rites of education in which students devise experiments, create posters, and try to impress judges with their diligent work.
As so often happens, Westport is bucking the trend.
Science fairs — all of science education, really — is alive and well in a town that more often celebrates financial wizardry, artistic endeavors and sports.
A fair that began as a tiny gathering in the Staples library several years ago has mushroomed into an event that draws more than 300 student exhibitors from 4 schools, judges and guests. Last week, science research students participated in what’s now called the Southern Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair — the gateway to an international competition.
Jackson Yang took behavioral science 1st place for his work on “The Effect of Volume of Background Music on Cognitive Task Performance.” Yuri Lenskiy finished 1st in physical science for “Modeling an Optimal Receiver for a Binary Quantum Channel Using Information Theory.”
Other students received awards for projects like “The Effect of Over-Expression of E-Cadherin on Megakaryocyte Differentiation” (Isabel Baker); “Multicolored Quantum Dot-Based Light-Emitting Diodes Utilizing Highly Monodisperse CdSe/ZnS/Shell Nanocrystals” (Robert Mahieu) and (this one I understand) “Memory and Recollection of Goldfish” (Matt Smith).
Congressman Jim Hines addressed the student scientists. He called America’s science and engineering standing “now deep in the pack. We are junior varsity, and that must change.”
Staples already has a varsity, resembling the best that can be found on the soccer or football field. A 3-year Science Research Program — led by Dr. Nick Morgan and Dr. Michele Morse — provides students with unparalleled opportunities to unearth a problem, find a mentor, hone research skills, and discover answers (or, perhaps, more questions).
There are also subject-specific contests, like those for Young Epidemiology Scholars.
After review and certification of the Science Research Program, Morgan and Morse are now adjunct professors at the University of Albany. Their Staples students can earn up to 12 college credits through the college.
Middle school students also compete in science fairs. A district-wide event was held last week at Coleytown. Those students also plan to enter 2 upcoming competitions: the Invention Convention, and the Siemens Environmental Challenge.
Dr. A.J. Scheetz, Westport science coordinator for grades 6-12, sees science fairs as part of the effort to expand STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — education throughout the district. Other initiatives include the development of new computer programming courses at Staples, and reconfiguring the middle school science showcase.
The biggest hole, Scheetz says, is engineering. A group of students excel in robotics — they’ve won international awards — but more can be done. “We’d like to see experiences in engineering become normative experiences for all Westport students,” Scheetz says.
If so, perhaps one day a Staples grad will design the 21st-century version of Sputnik.
Then again, she may still be in high school when she does.