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Book review: Science Fair Season

This review ran in the June 20th edition of the Hamilton Spectator. For Hamilton, one way to get kids out of poverty is to get them into the Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair.

Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, A Robot Named Scorch And What It Takes to Win

By Judy Dutton

Hyperion

$26.99

Somewhere in Hamilton’s Code Red neighbourhoods is the next Kayla Cornale.

Cornale invented Sounds into Syllables while she was a high school student in Burlington.  It’s a computer-based teaching system for children with autism that uses music as a bridge to learning. Cornale"s motivation for the project was personal. She was looking for a way to connect with her younger cousin who has autism.

Cornale’s project would go on to win more than 50 awards, including top honours at the regional Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in 2005 and 2006.  In 2007, she won a CNN Hero of the Year Award. Kayla used her science fair prize money to apply for patent and launch Sounds into Syllables in special education classes across North America.

 “The lesson I would learn from her was that the ultimate reward of doing science fairs isn’t fame or money or college scholarships,” says author Nancy Dutton about interviewing Cornale, who at the time was a sophomore at Stanford University. “It’s far simpler than that. It’s about connecting with the people you care about most.”

Cornale is one of 12 science fair competitors profiled by Dutton.  There’s a 14-year-old radioactive whiz kid who built a nuclear fusion reactor. A junkyard genius who built a solar-powered room and water heater for his family’s trailer on the Navajo Indian reservation. A 16-year girl with leprosy who set out to replace fear with facts about the disease. The science fair stars behind bars at a juvenile correctional facility. A kid who took on DuPont. And a teen actress and model who shot a documentary on honeybees and colony collapse disorder.

While every story is unique, there’s a common theme. Every young person had a parent or teacher in their corner and pulling for their success.

Dutton also covers the Superbowl of science fairs, Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). The annual competition draws more than 1,500 teens from more than 50 countries. More than $4 million worth of scholarships and prizes is on the table.

“Science fairs bring back memories for just about all of us,” says Dutton. “The petri dishes. The potato clocks. The classic, crowd-pleasing baking soda volcanoes.”

Flash forward to today and the times have changed. As one of the ISEF judges tells Dutton, high schoolers are now solving problems that have puzzled scientists for years. “The level of sophistication in these projects is in many cases beyond the level of graduate school and doctoral research.”

And the value and importance of science fairs cannot be overstated, says Dutton.

“Winning changes kids. And not all of these changes can be measured in a cheque, plaque, ribbon or even whether the kids go to college. Some of the most significant changes are far more subtle. Winning opens their eyes to a world of possibilities. It nudges them to take risks. It turns on that little voice inside their heads that says you can do this, even when they swear they can’t. It gives them grit, and guts, and the knowledge that they have the smarts and heart to handle whatever life throws their way. It gives them hope that, in spite of the odds, they have what it takes to end up on top.”

What’s good for the kids is also good for our communities. We’re part of a global economy that’s driven by innovation and entrepreneurship. Encouraging kids to consider and pursue STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is a smart move if we’re serious about tackling growing labour shortages, closing a widening skills gap and addressing complex problems that have no easy solutions.

It’s also a smart move if we’re serious about making Hamilton the best place to raise a child. One way to get kids out of poverty is to get them into the Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair. It’s one of Canada’s largest and longest running fairs, open to Grade 7 to 12 students from Hamilton and Halton, and entirely volunteer-run.

So here’s a project for Hamilton. What would happen if an all-star line-up of hometown engineers, researchers, technologists and technicians signed on as mentors and coaches for elementary and secondary school students in Code Red neighbourhoods? What if we gave kids an all access pass to our city’s wealth of labs and workshops, equipment and technology?  

What if local businesses, service clubs and philanthropists doubled down on scholarships and prizes and underwrote the cost of putting together projects? What if marketing, advertising and PR pros helped sell the fair and helped kids practice and perfect their pitches to judges? What if lawyers offered to help kids complete the paperwork to patent their winning ideas?

And what if our civic leaders celebrated the winners, their teachers and mentors, BASEF volunteers and sponsors with the same enthusiasm that we’ll shower on the Tiger-Cats when they win their 16th Grey Cup?

Add this book to your summer reading list. It’s an inspiring read, a reaffirmation that the kids are alright and a reminder of the difference one grown-up can make in the future of a child.

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