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LA County Science Fair faces $35,000 shortfall

The logo for the LA County Science Fair.
The logo for the LA County Science Fair.

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David Zimmerman is very excited to be spending some quality time with his good friend Shewy.

“Well Shewy is my pet name for the bacterium that I work with, which is formally Shewanella Onidensis MR1," he said. 

Zimmerman is researching the genetic makeup of Shewy to see how it can be used for real world applications – like generating energy for fuel cells or cleaning out toxic chemicals in our water supply. He spends a lot of his time with Shewy, that is, outside of his classes at Brentwood School. Oh yeah, did I mention he’s in high school?

I caught up with him at a molecular biology lab at USC, where he’s working on his entry into this year’s L.A. County Science Fair. You know, the science fair, that age-old tradition where kids gets to show off their experiments with three fold poster boards and model volcanos. Or in Zimmerman’s case: “Site directed mutagenesis of Shewanella Oneidensis MR1: A novel strategy for genetic engineering," he said. 

This is not your grandma's science fair. Next Thursday, some of the county’s brightest students will set up their projects at the pasadena convention center. It’s the oldest and one of the biggest science fairs in the West. Every year, participants go on to earn big scholarships at prestigious universities and internships at the top companies in their field. This year there are an expected 1,500 entrants, but all those projects could end up sitting on the floor.2

“Right now I think the doomsday scenario is we may not have table, chair, pipe and drape," said Dean Gilbert, president of the LA County Science Fair. "We may not have enough medals to give the kids. We may not have any prize money, the scholarships. We may just have a bare building and then judge the projects and acknowledge the kids as winners.”

He said they’re currently about $35,000 short of the $100,000 it costs to put on the fair. That means not being able to rent tables and chairs, or provide food for hundreds of volunteers. Gilbert has managed to get some last-minute donations from high-tech companies, like SpaceX and Raytheon, but not nearly enough to fill the gap. 

This might sound surprising given the recent surge in interest in STEM – that is the fields of Science Technology Engineering and Math. President Obama, for one, seems to never stop talking about it, but the L.A. County science fair is not a government program. It’s a privately funded non profit that has seen donations dry up in this tight economic climate.

Professor Michael Bowen at Mount St. Vincent University is one of the top researchers on the benefits of science fairs. He theorizes that it could actually be the time-honored tradition of these events that makes it difficult for them to grab attention.

“In California right now there is a Placer County STEM Exposition, and it promotes itself as an innovative alternative to the typical science fair," said Professor Bowen. "That sounds really cool, whereas, if science fairs are being portrayed as stodgy and dull, where would you put your money if you were a sponsor?”  

Participation in science fairs is down across the country, and many schools have dropped it as a requirement due to slashed budgets and an increasing emphasis on test scores. In L.A. County, the number of schools participating has dropped from a peak of about 250 to about 185 over the last decade.

Dean Gilbert says schools and technology companies need to take a second look at science fairs as an opportunity to invest in the economy of tomorrow:

“We have to change that perception. We have to show them science fair projects are not just another event. It’s not just a spelling bee. It’s not just a competition," said Gilbert. "The essence of a science fair project is solving problems using their critical thinking skills and that is really what the job market, the technological workforce is demanding.”

Research has shown that science fairs play an important role in exposing kids to the professional practice of science. David Zimmerman can certainly attest to that. He parlayed his science fair success into a full-time summer position at the USC lab he works in now.

"Science has over the past few years come to mean something really a lot more to me than words in a textbook and that’s really because of the science fair," said Zimmerman. "I’ve gotten this incredible exposure to this world where people actually get paid for figuring out how nature works which is beautiful and unimaginably cool.”

As for his project this year? He’s ready to set up on the floor if need be. His solid foundation in science experiments has helped prepare him for life’s little disappointments.

“There is no such thing as good data or bad data there is just data and it’s expected or unexpected but anyways that’s science. It can be frustrating but you know, such is life," said Zimmerman. 

To borrow a metaphor from his beloved Monty Python: “I’m not dead yet!"