Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Area science fair is worth saving

Guest Writer
Guest Opinion

It began with a purple ribbon. That was the prize I took home from a first-grade science project.

I still remember seeing it pinned up on the corner of my poster board. I couldn’t have been more excited if you’d handed me a star.

I know, because eight years later someone did: Minor Planet 15624 Lamberton. It’s a kilometer or 2 across, a planet-killer if it ever managed to swing our direction.

It occurs to me that, while Bruce Willis might be first on the list to call, scientists are usually the ones who have to save the day. I think I had something of that glamorous career in mind when I began entering projects in the Southern Arizona Regional Science Fair.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had competed nationally in Washington, D.C. – where the finalists were rewarded with asteroids – attended an expense-paid astronomy camp in Hawaii and earned a college scholarship.

Like many worthy organizations this year, SARSEF is struggling with a budget shortfall. Corporations that usually donate generously to keep the fair alive are tightening their belts, and the University of Arizona has troubles of its own.

That doesn’t mean just cutting back on prizes and scholarships. This might be the last year that SARSEF can host projects from kindergarten through fifth grade, which typically fill more than half the hall at the Tucson Convention Center.

I’m an example of why we should fight to keep science fairs alive. One year, my dad and I spent weekends driving to places like Eloy and Three Points, hunting down official weather stations.

We tramped through pine forests, crawled under fences, knocked on strangers’ doors. I returned from each trip cradling a carton of soil samples, neatly sealed into egg-shaped cups. My art teacher let me borrow her kiln, and I burned away leaves and debris among my classmates’ pottery.

A few years later, I wasn’t digging up Arizona soils anymore. I had landed a job with the Phoenix Mars Mission, and I was watching a spacecraft dig in the regolith of Mars.

I owe my success to SARSEF. 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.

Every March I return to SARSEF as a volunteer judge, wandering the rows of science projects where students proudly display their homemade catapults and flourishing plants.

Some proclaim success in bold letters: Yes, you can teach goldfish to read! Others are catastrophic failures (never, ever give coffee to earthworms).

I can’t help wondering what the Tucson Convention Center will look like in years to come. Cutting elementary school projects means, eventually, fewer middle and high school entries.

It means fewer students reach college with the confidence to ask questions and the ability to seek out answers. It means Tucson will produce fewer engineers and scientists, in an economy that desperately needs them.

It’s easy to believe that small things like ribbons don’t matter much. But take a look around the Tucson Convention Center next week, and you’ll discover they do matter.

Our own children tell us that, as they explore the life cycles of bumblebees and examine the delicate unfolding of lima beans on a window sill.

What price do you put on imagination? How do you budget for innovation and discovery? The costs of ignoring science education are very real, though not always calculated.

SARSEF needs donations and volunteers, even if it’s only a few dollars or an hour out of your day. We cannot afford to shut the doors on our children’s imagination. No matter what today and tomorrow look like, we cannot allow dust to gather on their future.

I’m off to graduate school soon, where I’ll continue studying the intricacies of soils here on Earth and on Mars. The other day, cleaning out my shed, I discovered a box with my name on it.

Inside, I found a jumble of Petri dishes, microscope slides and a vial of bacteria from Antarctica that I don’t have the courage to open. I also found – faded, and a little frayed where I had it tacked on my bedroom wall all those years – a purple ribbon.

Melissa Lamberton is a University of Arizona student, a poet and a Tucson native. E-mail: mllamb@ email.arizona.edu

The Southern Arizona Regional Science Fair will be held Monday through March 20 at the Tucson Convention Center.

It is open to the public March 18-20 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

To volunteer or make a tax-deductible donation, go to www.sarsef.org.

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