Young Tom Edisons are becoming more scarce Participation in science fair declines

March 20, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

The Baltimore Science Fair is not faring so well.

Participation by the area's middle and high school students is 20 percent below last year's, and 1992 participation was well below previous fairs, sponsors say.

"The number of exhibits has been steadily decreasing over the past four years," said Thomas Ferrara, the fair's director.

The 38th annual fair this weekend at Towson State University will have only slightly more than 100 entries, even though students from at least 226 secondary schools are eligible. Last year's fair had about 135 entries, and before that, there were nearly 200 entries, Mr. Ferrara said.

Students from public and private schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties are eligible. Most are chosen through school science fairs, and that may be part of the problem, says Mr. Ferrara, a member of the Towson Kiwanis, which co-sponsors the fair with the Baltimore Kiwanis and Towson State.

"Some schools don't wish to undertake all the work that's involved at the local level," he said. "Or schools may want to put science fairs together, but students don't want to do the work. It appears that somewhere along the line, the emphasis has decreased."

Baltimore may be unusual in this regard, said Aileen Zogby, spokeswoman for Science Service Inc., a nonprofit organization that promotes science and works with representatives of student fairs. "Our indicators are that quite the opposite is true. People are becoming more and more aware of experiential, hands-on learning," she said.

Affiliated with more than 400 fairs, Science Service sponsors the annual International Science and Engineering Fair for the regional winners. "The number of affiliated fairs has increased," said Ms. Zogby. "We get inquiries all the time about how to start science fairs. Every year one or two fairs drop out, but it balances out -- with the weight toward expansion."

At least one area scientist is chagrined by the falling number of participants locally. "One of my interests is to see it grow," said Subhash C. Dhanesar, who works at Becton Dickinson & Co. and is a volunteer judge. He has recruited more than 20 fellow employees to work at this year's fair.

Mr. Dhanesar sees the fair as a way to promote interest in science and "encourage students to be good at the things they (( are doing."

Although interest in these fairs has to begin in school, he says, businesses and community organizations must be involved too. "And parents have to encourage their children . . . and demand of the schools that they have these programs."

The sponsors give both money and certificates to first, second and third-place and honorable mention winners. In addition, a number of societies and businesses with scientific interests send their own judges to evaluate the exhibits and award prizes. The two first-place winners from the high school entries will win an all-expense paid trip to the international fair in May in Mississippi Beach, Miss.

One Baltimore County school administrator says the fair's emphasis on individual projects may be bringing down participation.

"We are trying to build a greater amount of cooperation among our kids, but the science fair says you can't enter group projects," said Ronald Barnes, acting director of the Office of Science for Baltimore County Schools.

"The days of the Thomas Edisons are over. Research and science endeavors are in teams [today]," he said.

Some teachers also object to the competition engendered by such fairs.

This year Becton Dickinson will give certificates to every student who participates. "Not everyone can win, but everyone needs to be recognized," said Mr. Dhanesar. "The only ones who have failed are those who have not tried."

The projects will be judged today., The exhibition, at the University Union, will be open to the public from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow, with an awards ceremony at 5 p.m.

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