By Menka Suresh
The Research Associations, WAC Lighting Invitational Science Fair, had its 12th annual science fair on April 23 2023 at Commack High School.
Science has been a huge part of New York as the state was a pioneer in the formation of and spread of science fairs in the United States.
“I came to the [United] States in 1991 to do my PhD at Stony Brook [University]” Dr. Sharadha Sambasivan, a Long Island resident said, “I immediately noticed how scientifically literate the people around me were, and it has only grown since [then]!”
The WAC Lighting Invitation Science Fair has been taking place in Long Island for the past 12 years, bringing together local researchers from all areas of science. In its latest iteration, it gathered close to 400 students from 13 different schools in an environment where new developments and innovations can be showcased.
“It’s an invitational, so I get calls every year from schools who would like to join, and I would love to be able to let them join, but we already have 392 kids today!” Allyson Weseley, President of the Research Associations said, “And we are able to bring a lot of other projects here whereas at other competitions there are generally smaller limits. We allow [all of] our members to bring 30 students to a competition.”
The first science fair in the US took place in The American Institute in New York City, in October 1828. This fair did not showcase any scientific or technological advancements, but instead focused on agricultural exhibitions as people would showcase the crops they grew and tools they used. The most prominent tool showcased then was the iron plow.
“Its purpose was to promote domestic industry in the United States” Dr. Sevan Terzian, professor at the University of Florida’s School of Teaching and Learning and author of Science Education and Citizenship: Fairs, Clubs, and Talent Searches for American Youth, said.
The first children’s science fair in the US took place 100 years later in New York at the American Museum of Natural History. Over 3000 children participated in the fair, and 35000 Americans attended throughout the 4 day exhibit. Due to its success, student science fairs opened every year since, which resulted in the formation of numerous science clubs to help support the scientific curiosity of the American students.
“There were lots of school teachers who wrote [to] the American Institute afterwards and said ‘this was incredible! Our students were engaged in scientific learning in [so many] ways and preparing their projects in ways we have not seen before.’” Dr. Terzian said, “It was immensely popular in that sense.”
Practical science inventions were displayed in the Chicago fair in 1933, where for the first time exhibitions showcased science and technology in everyday settings to emphasize the importance of science in the American way of life.
The fair was created as a way to alleviate the psychological stress of the Great Depression and showcase the success of capitalism to the American public, Cheryl Ganz, author of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: A Century of Progress wrote in her book. This is important because the public at the time blamed capitalism for the Great Depression.
The next fair was the 1939 World Exposition in New York, dubbed the “World of Tomorrow”, where visitors were shown inventions that would potentially be seen in the future. This event helped cement the association between scientific advancements and their practical applications in everyday life, as well as make the public more open to capitalism and corporations.
“One of the overarching motives of the Worlds Fair was to try to re-instill consumer confidence on the heels of the great depression” Dr. Terzian said, “There was a very powerful industrial and corporate presence at the World’s fair and it was to heighten consumer awareness of brand names and the utility of those products for their lifestyle. And the larger purpose of reviving the dormant United States economy. That was a big big push in 1939.”
Science fairs soon developed as a way to introduce students to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) early in school, in order to cultivate their interest in science.
“I was a part of a science fair a few years ago and it really sparked my interest in microbiology and food science” Aayush Pande, sophomore student at Cornell University said “I didn’t really know what major to pick and so it really motivated me to look into food science as a potential major, and now I am in my sophomore year majoring in food science”
Science fairs have moved beyond the “vinegar volcano” demonstration. In recent years, students have gone above and beyond to showcase new and innovative experiments. The winners of last years fair discovered a new genetic link between 10 types of cancer, a novel way to identify autism risk genes, suicide risk prediction and prevention, and so much more!
“It amazes me how these young minds are performing high level research and doing a great job in presenting their work formally!” Dr. Richa Rawat, 7 time Research Association science fair judge, said, “Many times I come back home and search literature to learn more about the research that was presented by a student.”
Students not only practice the scientific method of conducting experiments, but they also learn how to present their information, which in turn gives them ample practice with public speaking. Additionally students also get to interact with judges within their field of research and get meaningful feedback.
“I feel like it’s a lot of learning, and I feel like I get to learn how to communicate better. And just in general getting to interact with everyone that also does research is very informational,” Jeslyn Choudhury, a senior at Jericho High School, said.
Science fairs have always been important for the students as they provide a practical way for students to ask questions, come up with a methodological approach to answer them and then share their findings.
“I think that is a great way for students to express their kind of opinions and express their hard work,” Amana Gardezy, sophomore at Commack High School said. “It’s a great way to show off like you know ‘this is what I am doing!’”
With the advancement of technology, science fairs increase scientific literacy amongst the youth. However, fairs not only help the students who participate, but also the judges. As certain projects and techniques can be used in their current research.
“I want[ed] to come and see the future scientists.” Dr. Hongtao Ma, researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine and first time judge at the WAC foundation Invitational Science Fair, said. “Hopefully I can get some idea[s] on how my lab can also contribute to the[se] scientists [research] and the research field as a whole”
Science literacy had a key role during the coronavirus pandemic, when it pushed researchers around the globe to work together and develop novel vaccines, detection kits, and treatments in a short amount of time in order to help people.
“During the initial stages of Covid, we had a lot of pressure put on us to develop quick and accurate testing kits” Dr. Praveen Pande, director of chemistry at Enzo Life Sciences said, “but given the gravity of the situation we knew we had to think outside the box and quickly develop something because there were thousands of people dying around the world”
Even though science fairs started off as a way to promote scientific literacy to the American public, they are now monumental in broadening the interest of future STEM students.
“I think that ideally, the best thing that can happen at a place like this is that it broadens your interest,” Weseley said. “That instead of just narrowly focusing on ‘This is my project and I’m presenting it’ and even worse ‘I’m defending it’. Ideally kids are open to conversation with [the] judges, they think of things that they haven’t thought about before. They check out other projects by the other kids and they think ‘Oh that’s really cool, maybe I can do this?’”