Placer County STEM Expo held at William Jessup
Placer County’s self-proclaimed “innovative alternative” to the school science fair wrapped up its seventh year last weekend at William Jessup University. Of this year’s 135 participants, six will represent Placer County in the state science fair in Los Angeles later this spring.
Student entries covered a wide range of topics, from inventing a dog-treat launcher to questioning whether GMOs are beneficial or harmful. According to event coordinator Heidi Buck, the expo’s scientific inquiry category saw the most entries. This category embodies the more traditional science fair, where students form a hypothesis about a subject and set out to find an answer using the scientific method.
Buck said that STEM Expo, Inc., the volunteer-run nonprofit in charge of the event, prides itself on providing innovative categories that attract a wider variety of participants. Other categories for student projects included Rube Goldberg machines, science fiction and reverse engineering, which encourages students to figure out how things work by taking them apart. Buck said that even though the state fair only accepts entries from robotics and computer science, environmental and agricultural innovation, invention and scientific inquiry, the alternative options still get students excited.
“This is a venue for them to say ‘Look what I did’ in categories that are not always showcased in science,” she said. “Last year a student told us, ‘I love being able to show off how smart I am.’”
Rules for each category varied widely, but every student or team had to have a visual display of their project, whether it was with a tri-fold piece of cardboard or a YouTube video of an invention. The expo was open to all Placer County students grades 3-12, though only grades six and up were selected for the state fair. A pool of 24 judges, each experienced in the field they were judging, evaluated the projects and chose winners for each category, as well as those headed to the state competition.
JetBlue, one of the event’s sponsors, has provided six travel vouchers for the winning students’ flights to Los Angeles. The Placer County Office of Education also sponsored the event, giving STEM Expo, Inc. $2,000 to help with operating costs. Event director Eric Bull, a former William Jessup professor of education, said that the contribution saved them from calling off this year’s event.
Bull said that one of his biggest motivators behind running the STEM Expo is that it encourages kids to learn about the world around them, even outside a school setting. The event also has a less obvious benefit: boosting confidence.
“Some students who are into the sciences have a social awkwardness,” Bull said. “But when they’ve come here, some year after year, we’ve seen advances in social aptitude. And that’s so cool.”
The California State Science Fair will take place in Los Angeles from April 24-25. Placer County’s six students are expected to join approximately 1,000 others in the competition.