CORD’s outreach helps students qualify for science fair

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Area middle- and high-school students who competed at the Central Alabama Regional Science and Engineering Fair at UAB and advanced to the state competition won 75 percent of all place awards during the Alabama State Science and Engineering Fair in April.

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The Central Alabama Regional Science and Engineering Fair at UAB attracted more than 400 students this March — the largest science fair in Alabama history.

“It’s amazing how much and how fast our fair has grown,” says Mike Wyss, Ph.D., director of UAB’s Center for Community Outreach Development (CORD), which hosted the largest regional fair in the state’s recent history in March. “We had more than 400 competitors this year from 21 counties, and the projects were just phenomenal.”

Fifty-four students in grades six through 12 advanced to the Alabama State Science and Engineering Fair in Huntsville. Collectively, those 54 young scientists won 145 awards, or 44 percent of all awards presented, including three of the four grand-prizes. Also, eight of the top 10 individuals who received the most awards advanced to the state competition from the UAB-CORD fair.

Seven participants will travel to Los Angeles May 7 and compete with other future scientists in the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair.

Wyss says the success of the UAB-CORD fair can be attributed to several factors — especially the hard work by CORD Administrator Shirley Sanders Ginwright and Outreach Development Coordinator Kevin Jarrett.

“Shirley’s hard work cannot be emphasized enough,” Wyss says. “She makes things happen, and the people who visit our campus notice. And Kevin is instrumental because he visits the teachers in the 21 counties and encourages the kids in these schools to get into science and create competitive projects.”

Wyss says Jarrett and the CORD staff work with the students to make sure they were fully ready for the state competition.

“Our winners performed outstandingly at state fair, largely because Kevin and some of the other staff brought all of the competitors together at CORD and prepped them for the state competition,” Wyss says. “Many places just aren’t willing to go that extra mile.”

Of course, the science projects themselves have to be of high caliber too.

More than 75 UAB faculty, post docs and graduate students were judges for the UAB-CORD regional fair, led by Thane Wibbels, Ph.D., and Roger Gilchrist, Ph.D. in biology. One of the judges was UAB freshman student Mason McFarland, who went through the UAB-CORD fairs as a high-school student and won a grand prize at the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair in 2010 for his research on suppressing the growth of kudzu. McFarland, a student in UAB’s Science & Technology Honors Program, was impressed with what he saw from the middle- and high-school students.

“He was judging the middle-school division, and when he finished, he looked at some of the high-school projects and walked over to me and said, ‘You know, Dr. Wyss, I am not sure that my project would have made it this year. They’ve gotten so much better,’” Wyss says. “There were some fantastic projects this year.”

Wyss says the judges also make a positive impact on students and their families, and the UAB-CORD fair is the perfect opportunity to show them what UAB has to offer.

“Our judges are very important to our fair, and they do a great job of talking to these kids and making them feel their worth as future scientists,” Wyss says. “That experience is mind-changing for a lot of kids and their parents. They start to see UAB as an excellent option for their young scientist’s future education.”