Can science fair compete with the Super Bowl?

Feb 1 2011 - 10:41am

ST. LOUIS -- William Sun was watching the State of the Union address on TV with his roommates at Harvard University when he heard the line.

"We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated," President Barack Obama said last Tuesday, "but the winner of the science fair."

That clever rhetorical bit seemed to strike a nerve. It was tweeted and retweeted, shared and repeated throughout the following days. The line spoke to the unequal weight placed on athletics over academics, the need for America to regain its scientific mojo. But only a much smaller group could know, really know, what the president was talking about -- because they had been there, atop that supposedly lonely podium reserved for the champions of the science fair.

Sun understood. He was a science fair winner, three years ago at the regional Academy of Science-St. Louis Science Fair, one of the largest such fairs in the world.

"I definitely agree with the sentiment," said Sun, 19, a sophomore from Chesterfield, Mo., studying chemical and physical biology. "It definitely rings true."

While their achievements are not ignored, science fair winners generally do not get their jubilant photos on a newspaper's front page. Banners are not hung from school gym rafters. The backlit marquees of local gas stations and motels rarely shout out to science fair champs. Websites are not created in their honor. Names of winners from all the different age divisions, kindergarten through 12th grade, are unlikely to make even the tiny agate in a newspaper's back pages, something done regularly for mundane sports transactions.

"I don't know if she'd ever admit it," said Barb Rey, mother of Melissa, a science fair winner from Chesterfield, "but she took some flak over it in school."

Melissa Rey is a veteran science fair winner. A junior at John F. Kennedy Catholic High, she has won a blue ribbon at the St. Louis science fair every year since fifth grade. She was named 2008 America's Top Young Scientist by Discovery Education. For that, she won a $50,000 U.S. savings bond. You can watch a two-minute YouTube video about her winning entry on the Doppler effect.

The video has been online two years. It has been viewed fewer than 1,000 times.

But her achievement was recognized. Melissa, a cheery blonde who does not conform to the image of a "science nerd," ended up on one local TV talk show, her mother said. Some local papers wrote about her. Her school held an assembly. The governor gave her an award. Boeing hosted a lunch.

The stigma of science fairs is not what it once was, said Peggy Nacke, director of the St. Louis science fair. "I think Bill Gates eased that for everyone." So has Mark Zuckerberg, whose Facebook exploits were celebrated in last year's film "The Social Network."

But no one pretends that winning the science fair gets the attention of winning even a single high school football game. Many sports programs have booster clubs. The St. Louis science fair, a fixture since the late 1940s, entered 2011 facing financial ruin when major sponsor Pfizer dropped its support. Just last week, the fair was saved with a $70,000 donation from MEMC Electronic Materials Inc., in O'Fallon, Mo.

A win at the science fair can create lifelong memories. Bruce Weik, now 62, has not forgotten how he won the 1961 science fair at his Freeburg middle school. Today, he takes only a few moments to recall the winning project's topic: "thermal variation of heart action in fish." Weik, who lives in Galesburg, Ill., said he discarded his blue ribbon only in December, in preparation for a move.

Perhaps the problem with celebrating science fair winners is understanding why they won. The days of baking soda volcanoes are well past. Last year's top honor at the St. Louis science fair went to Gechen Zhang of Rockwood Summit High for discovering a new species of the impatiens flower.

In 2008, Sun, then a junior at Parkway Central, captured top honors at the St. Louis science fair for a project titled: "A novel small molecule inhibitor reveals essential roles for GBF1 in intracellular transport." His research, which involved cloning and genetic sequencing, could lead to therapies for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. The project also won him second place in the national 2009 Intel Science Talent Search.

Sun said his wins were celebrated by his friends and family. He was featured in brief stories in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and USA Today.

But the hurdle for science fair winners is not the amount of recognition they receive, Sun said. It's about getting society to appreciate the potential of scientific pursuits.

"It is a much broader problem than coverage," Sun said.

The St. Louis science fair is gearing up again. The main competition comes in April. But the Academy of Science-St. Louis is judging entries in its top-flight honors division this weekend, on Feb. 5.

The next day and a world away, a football game will be played: the Super Bowl.

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