Calling all Earth Scientists to the Fair
Don Byerly

Just when it seems science and science education are going you know where in the proverbial handbasket, a trip to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), sponsored by Intel and managed by Science Service, restores your faith in the future.

The ISEF, often referred to as the “Olympics of Science Fairs,” brings together more than 1,100 finalists in grades 9 to 12 from all over the world in a different host city each year. The American Geological Institute (AGI), which publishes Geotimes, supports ISEF annually by recognizing young scientists who have demonstrated excellence in the earth and space sciences. Privileged to be an AGI Special Awards judge at the ISEF for a number of years, I have been heartened by the high caliber of projects in all facets of science, mathematics and engineering — it is not uncommon to see at least 10 percent of the finalists’ projects have patents pending.

AGI presents its awards to finalists whose research best reflects the study of Earth and the AGI mission, emphasizing the vital role of the geosciences in society. Throughout the years, AGI winners have been outstanding. Although no records exist tracking their careers, it is safe to say, based upon conversations with past awardees, that they have all pursued higher education and most likely have successful careers. Typically, AGI awardees receive a monetary award and a publication. In 2003, the first-place project received $1,000; the second-place project $250; and both received certificates and the book, Origins, Evolution of Continents, Oceans and Life, by Ron Redfern. Each of the student awardees and their teachers also receive one-year subscriptions to Geotimes. Additionally, the Association of Engineering Geologists and the Association for Women Geoscientists presented awards to outstanding student projects.

Despite the excellence of the earth and space sciences ISEF finalists, I have been disappointed to see so few. At the 2003 ISEF, the number of earth and space sciences entries ranked 12th out of the 14 various sciences, mathematics and engineering categories — a weak showing for such a vital science, especially with a rising need for more professional geoscientists, particularly as earth science teachers. It is essentially a catch-22 situation: It takes more teachers to inspire more students and more students to become better earth science teachers.

Earth science being eclectic, with teachers or students sometimes errantly place earth science projects in categories other than the earth and space sciences, AGI judges have always reviewed ISEF finalists’ projects in all 14 categories. In the past, AGI awardees have come from such categories as physics, zoology, engineering, chemistry and environmental science — a category second only to engineering in the number of ISEF finalists. Because of the relatively close relationship between environmental science and earth science, we often find a number of earth science projects entered in the environmental science category. In 2003, two of the AGI awardees were environmental science entries.

In the last decade the distribution of the average number of finalists in each of the earth and space sciences subcategories recognized by Science Service were as follows: astronomy and planetary science, 15; climatology and weather, 6; geochemistry and mineralogy, 5; geophysics, 3; tectonics, 1; other, 9.

The total number of finalists in the earth and space sciences has remained almost constant. Numbers modestly increased from 30 finalists to a high of 51 finalists in the year 2000 — an increase that correlates to a marked increase in the number of finalists entered in the astronomy and planetary science subcategory. Since 2000, the total number of earth and space sciences finalists has decreased slightly (48 in 2003) as the number of astronomy and planetary science finalists has remained essentially the same. In the last decade, the number of ISEF finalists in astronomy and planetary science has risen from 16 percent to 48 percent of all the finalists in the earth and space sciences.

The rising interest in the “space” aspect of the category is obvious — easily explained by the increased levels of recognition current space and planetary science research affords, as well as by the educational initiatives supported by NASA. However, the appallingly low numbers in the other areas of earth science call to mind several possible reasons. One, already mentioned, is that there are not enough well-trained earth science teachers in our schools to encourage good students to pursue research in the geosciences; two, there are not enough professionals taking the initiative to seek out and mentor bright students with earth science interests; and three, geoscience departments in colleges and universities are not doing all that is possible to encourage and support the research of promising pre-collegiate students.

Geoscience departments in higher-education institutions could affect the number of young pre-collegiate earth and planetary sciences researchers in several positive ways. They could recommend teaching careers to geoscience majors, sponsor Earth Science Week activities and support the research efforts of high school students. A real benefit for universities and colleges that mentor potential ISEF finalists is the opportunity to recruit top-notch students.

Earth scientists can also step up to the plate — I would like to challenge you to take proactive roles in local and regional science fairs. Contact the science supervisors in nearby high schools and offer services as mentors for students with interests in earth and planetary sciences. Also, Earth Science Week affords an excellent opportunity for contacting students and teachers. You owe it to our profession.

Byerly is professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and adjunct professor of geology at the University of Tennessee in Martin.
AGI affiliate organizations that might be interested in future collaboration with ISEF should contact AGI’s Director of Education Mike Smith.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in this section by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of Geotimes publisher the American Geological Institute, its staff or its member societies.

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