WCU’s Western Regional Science Fair shows progress toward a bright future

After judging, the science projects were open for the public to view. Photo by Tanner Hall.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) submitted an Executive Report to President Obama in September 2010 that outlined the importance of teaching and inspiring young students in the United States to take an interest in math and science.

PCAST’s report, titled “Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education for America’s Future,” made the case that in order to fulfill the complicated job markets in an increasingly technological world, the country will have to take action now with regards to young students.

In a lot of ways, Western Carolina University was ahead of the curve by participating in the state science fair process.

Western held its annual Western Regional Science Fair in February for elementary grades three through five and high school juniors and seniors from schools all across the region.

It is the oldest science fair of its kind in the entire state. It started in the early 1950s with the first documentation dating back to 1956. The fair has grown in many ways since then with more students from a wider variety of schools participating, more diversified topics and continuously improving standards for science projects submitted.

These encouraging trends go hand-in-hand with several key points made in the STEM report.

One of the goals that PCAST set for this administration was to reward teachers that are able to inspire students in specific STEM fields. The report argued that just as the future depends on the students, it equally depends on having enough teachers that are willing and capable of inspiring students to pursue STEM-related careers.

In the Western Regional Science Fair, a point is made to acknowledge and reward teachers alongside of the students with books, DVDs and other unique gifts from different WCU departments. In Jackson County, it is solely up to the teachers as to whether or not the students will create and submit projects. The progress gained through the science fair each year would not be possible without the dedication and hard work of the teachers.

Many students see the STEM subjects as uninteresting or too difficult. To counter, PCAST set another goal to create interest among students of all backgrounds and give them legit opportunities for STEM experiences. According to the report, the United States consistently places average to below-average in science and mathematics performance testing. To coincide with this, there is an alarming gap between interest and achievement among minorities, including Native Americans.

According to the report, this lack of interest limits the potential in some job markets because the field is missing the talent and perspective of certain minority groups.

There are specific opportunities in this region to make advancements in this area and the science fair can play a big role. For instance, this was the first year that elementary students from New Kituwah Academy participated in the fair, presenting their projects in both the Cherokee and the English language.

PCAST also made the recommendation for the government to create opportunities for students to work individually and in groups for STEM-related activities outside of the classroom.

Director of the Western Regional Science Fair, Dr. Kefyn Catley, said that schools are gradually becoming more willing to travel long distances to attend the fair. For elementary and high school students alike, this is a chance to visit a potential college and see the work from other schools as well.

The events at WCU are part of the regional level of the science fair, but before the science projects make it onto Western’s campus, they first competed at the individual school levels. The winners that advanced through the local and regional levels experienced even more outside of the classroom when they competed at the state level in March.

The North Carolina Science and Engineering Fair, held at Meredith College in Raleigh, allows students and teachers to see what kind of resources students in other regions are working with and what types of region-specific projects are created. For example, students in the elementary competition for this region made projects that focused on topics such as landslides and local air pollution. Not only that, but students were not restricted to creating projects individually. Many students chose to work in pairs or in small groups.

Overall, the government senses the importance of molding a generation that is able to perform the highly skilled jobs of the technological future that will carry the economy and country to new heights.

In order to accomplish this, PCAST gave a detailed list of suggestions to the White House that concentrated on teachers, raising interest levels among minorities and unique experiences outside of the classroom.

Bipartisan efforts were made to begin this process in 2010 and WCU has followed step-for-step by continuing to cultivate progress with the Western Regional Science Fair and its role in the state fair.