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Science fairs mark the path to national excellence

Were you startled by a recent cover story in Parade magazine, wondering if the United States leads the world? Here's good news: Every county in New York State now has a regional science fair. Our youngsters can prepare for world leadership in science and engineering.

Who needs science fairs? Every American does, because science and technology drive our economy. The Parade article considers military might, the U.S. economy, health care, imports and two-way trade, and our enormous national energy consumption. America's talent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics - STEM - profoundly affects these issues.

In 1996, Robert Frosch, a research scientist and former NASA administrator, compared American lack of interest in science and technology degrees to a farmer who wants a great harvest but won't plant anything.

A decade later, the Business-Higher Education Forum warns that less than 40 percent of students intending to major in STEM fields as freshmen will actually get that degree. Fewer than 25 percent of underrepresented minorities complete the intended STEM degree, yet these expanding population groups are fertile soil for growing STEM graduates.

Let's walk around a science fair. From testing the infamous "10-second rule" for food dropped to the floor to inventing a process adding value to papermaking, you'll find it here. Students work independently or with a mentor at home, at school, even in laboratories and research centers. Each year at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair - the "Olympics of Science Fairs" to which every regional fair in the state sends at least two finalists - 10 to 15 percent of the students will file for a patent. All of New York has access to this glorious garden for the future STEM leaders of America.

Who better to plant the seeds of future success than we parents, teachers and people in industries of all sorts? We know these kids. Kids who devour information about their current passion (dogs, software, disease, outer space, etc.) are ready, and science fairs eagerly await them. Perhaps the student you have in mind gets great grades but needs more challenge. Or maybe you know someone like Syracuse's learning-disabled finalist from the 2004 International Science and Engineering Fair.

We don't get great soccer players or musicians by making children wait until college to kick a ball or blow a trumpet. We won't produce great American scientists and engineers unless we expose kids to the joy of discovery as soon as possible.

Please help deliver this message to kids: Want to get started on your dreams? Contact the science fair director at your school or find who serves your county at:

Mary Eileen Wood is director of the Tri-Region Science and Engineering Fair in Syracuse.

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