Science fair set for this weekend

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By Arin McKenna

Los Alamos County youth will showcase their ingenuity and research skills at the Los Alamos Public Schools County Science and Engineering Fair this weekend. The fair – cancelled due to snow on Jan. 21 – is rescheduled for Saturday.
Saturday’s fair is the first step toward qualifying for regional, state and international competition. The county’s top award-winners will move on to regional competition in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and from there hope to go on to compete in state finals at New Mexico Tech in Socorro.
Six students from state competition and two from each region move on to the Intel Science and Engineering Fair, which bills itself as “the world’s largest international pre-college science competition.”
Approximately 1,700 high school students from more 75 countries, regions and territories compete for approximately $4 million in prizes at that event.
“So it’s a real honor for our kids to be there. For at least the last 12 years I know that we’ve had students qualify for it,” Coordinator Dawn Brown said.  
Brown believes Los Alamos has been competing for at least 30 to 40 years. She works with someone at Los Alamos National Laboratory who entered as a child. This year she expects to see between 230 and 250 entries.
“We’ve seen the fair grow from less than 100 projects. Last year was our largest fair. We had 284 projects with over 300 kids,” Brown said.
Students can compete individually or in teams of up to three people.
“So we’ve seen the awards grow. Last year, I think we had over $10,000 in prizes and awards. And we’ve seen the projects grow. And the quality of projects have grown,” Brown said.
“And there’s been huge growth in the number of high school students that participate now. This is our largest contingency of high school students. We have 15 high school students that will be participating at the Science Fair,” she said.
The competition is open to all students in the county, including home-schooled students. More than 30 organizations donate awards, including organizations such as local Elks, Kiwanis and master gardeners clubs and businesses, such as CB Fox, which has been supporting the fair for more than 20 years.
“It’s always hugely rewarding to see the kids come across stage at our fair. You have the little kids coming up with their teachers for their first grade class project or the 12th graders,” Brown said.
“So it’s just very rewarding. We do a lot of things just because we love the kids and we have a passion for it.”
Brown – who began serving as coordinator 10 years ago – has decided this is her final year because of other commitments. She has watched students who were in fourth grade when she started walk across the stage as seniors in high school. The sixth-graders who qualify for state completion also stand out for Brown. LAPS is one of the few systems where sixth grade is at the elementary school level instead of the middle-school level. Brown is proud to see those students compete against others who have advantages such as science labs and designated science teachers.
Competition preparation begins in the classroom. First- through sixth-graders work on class projects. Fourth- and fifth-grade students can also compete individually. Sixth- through 12th-grade students are usually required to do science projects that meet state competition standards,  whether the student decides to compete or not.
Brown began running the event when she was LAPS’ curriculum specialist and coordinating the fair was one of her duties. When she left for LANL she was asked to continue as coordinator, which she has been doing ever since.
Organizing the fair is a year-round undertaking. Brown credits her committee – comprised of teachers from all seven schools and two community members – with much of the last decade’s success.
“It’s been a joy to work with the parents and the kids and my committee,” Brown said. “So I will miss it, and I will probably shed a lot of tears between now and the state science fair.”
Public viewing is from 12:30‒3:30 p.m. at Los Alamos High School, followed by an awards ceremony in Duane W. Smith Auditorium.