Science fair lets kids ‘study what they’re actually interested in’

Friday, March 4, 2011 9:25 PM

When a new seed-crushing plant designed to turn sunflower seeds into biofuel began operating in Dove Creek in 2005, Jordan Lestina got to thinking about how local farmers could increase the oil content of their sunflower seeds.

Pagosa Springs Middle School seventh-grader, Miah Pitcher explains her findings on her science project about fingerprint identification to Durango Fire & Rescue Authority Chief Dan Noonan during the San Juan Basin Regional Science Fair, held Thursday at the La Plata Fairgrounds. Students ranging from sixth through 12th grades from area schools competed.

After three years of work, Lestina presented a science-fair project this year concluding that plantingseeds earlier will boost the oil content of seeds.

“Sunflowers are widely grown, so it hit me do to a project on that topic,” said the Dove Creek High School senior.

Spiderman, tree farms and mystery-flavored Airheads were among the other sources of inspiration for more than 250 projects that competed Thursday at the 53rd annual San Juan Basin Regional Science Fair. Middle school and high school students from La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta, Dolores, Hinsdale and San Juan counties participatedatthe La Plata County Fairgrounds. The top 20 projects from the fair will advance to the Colorado State Science Fair April 7in Fort Collins.

For judges, teachers and organizers, the fair served as a reminder of the type of exploratory learning that seems to be fading as schools turn more of their focus to preparing students for standardized tests.

“It takes a lot more time than reading a chapter and taking a test, but it’s a worthwhile hands-on science where kids are motivated to study what they’re actually interested in,” said Lynn Schneider, the science fair coordinator.

Though the fair has seen an increase in high school participants the last six years, participation among middle-schoolers has been declining. This year’s fair has 40 fewer participants than last year’s, Schneider said.

Schneider said she’s heard from teachers that pressure is growing to teach science curriculums geared toward CSAP questions, which leaves less time for science-fair projects. Budget cuts have also hurt, she said.

Another big factor in students’ declining participation is the decision by schools to drop the science fair from required curriculums.

“The initial project needs to be through the schools, otherwise the students don’t do it,” Schneider said.

Durango School District 9-R stopped requiring its middle-schoolers to complete science-fair projects in 2007.

Barbara Wynne, a sixth-grade teacher at Miller Middle School, continued making science-fair participation a requirement in her classes until last year.

“I think the science fair is the number one way for kids to understand what science is all about,” Wynne said. “There’s a lot of frustration, and there’s a lot of learning.”

But curriculum standards and demand have changed over the years, she said. The after-school science club, which she leads, is now the only opportunity for students to work on science projects through the school.

“The science fair sort of gets shoved to the side,” she said. “Right now there’s not a structure that supports it.”

In Durango specifically, when students do commit to pursuing a project, they face a lack of resources that other students may get through big universities and hospitals, said Ben Kater, a retired professor of neuroscience who was a judge at the science fair. Though similar resources, such as work space and specialized tools, may exist through businesses or individuals, there is a lack of communication and access right now, Kater said.

“Creating webs and networks in a town our size is critical. The students need a little help from somebody,” he said. “It takes a village.It really does.”

The science fair is a cause that can’t be ignored, Wynne said.

“This is what’s going to solve the problems of the world.”