Oklahoma State University is doing its best to inspire and develop the next generation of scientists and engineers by revitalizing the Oklahoma State Science and Engineering Fair.
The fair has a long history in the state. For more than 40 years, OSSEF was held at East Central University in Ada. In 2019, the event moved to the OSU-Stillwater campus and grew from a one-day event to three days. This spring, attendance surged with more than 250 STEM interested seventh- through 12th-grade students, plus over 100 teachers and parents, coming to OSU.
“Students and adults were so appreciative of having the OSSEF held here at OSU,” said Dr. Julie Angle, an associate professor in the School of Teaching, Learning and Educational Sciences and coordinator of the OSSEF program. “I received comments like, ‘This is the best science fair I’ve ever been to,’ and ‘Everybody is so helpful and friendly at OSU.’”
Student participants qualify to compete at the state fair by placing in the top three in their category at one of seven highly competitive regional fairs. Categories include biochemistry; medicine and health science; physical sciences; earth and space sciences; behavioral and social sciences; engineering; mathematics and computer science; environmental science; zoology; botany; and microbiology.
Angle called the OSSEF event a tremendous success and great opportunity for Oklahoma middle school and high school STEM students.
“It also benefits our university,” she said. “The last several years OSU has supported efforts to strengthen its undergraduate research program. What better way to boost the program than to recruit students who are already conducting research? They obviously have the skills and the passion for it.”
“The state of Oklahoma benefits from the OSSEF program because it develops students’ skills that are essential in the preparation of undergraduate and graduate degrees, including academic writing, verbal and written communications, and problem-solving skills,” she added. “We are preparing kids to ask questions beyond a typical classroom. These kids identify research projects, design experiments, collect and analyze data, and then communicate their results to STEM professionals — all things that are expected of not just a researcher but of a person who is going to be successful regardless of their career choice.”
Michael Ken-Iong Hwang, a senior at Jenks High School, loves science and has been testing natural products on cancerous and normal cells since 10th grade.
“I like science research because you can see the direct result of the experiments,” he said.
It took Hwang nearly five months to collect the data for his science fair project, which looked at the impact matcha tea has on breast cancer cells.
“I discovered a differentiating effect on cancer cells compared to non-cancer cells,” Hwang said. “You can exploit that difference by isolating a compound in matcha green tea that will only kill the cancerous cells by stopping the metabolism of cancerous cells while your normal cells will be able to continue to metabolize and stay healthy.”
Hwang enjoyed presenting the findings on his research poster during the OSU competition. He was one of 17 Oklahoma students that qualified to compete at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair last May in Phoenix.
After serving as the major international fair sponsor, Intel is stepping down, and regional fair directors nationwide have been notified that regional and state affiliation and registration fees will increase by about 50 percent.
“It may cause some of the regional fairs to shut down or increase the cost for students to participate,” Angle said.
Michael’s mother, Wen Ching Hwang, does not want to see any Oklahoma regional fairs close their doors because she has seen the benefits firsthand on students who conduct research.
“The best part of the science fair is the level of intricacy that Michael works on his project and his poster,” she said. “I love to see him happy and enjoying presenting his research.”
Michael Hwang was glad to learn that Tulsa will host a regional science fair this school year — bringing the statewide total to eight regional science and engineering fairs — meaning he won’t need to travel to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in Miami, Oklahoma, like in years past.
Angle is planning to use money from her endowed professorship (Bill and Billie Buckles Innovation in Teaching) to host three teacher workshops in Tulsa and one in Oklahoma City to better prepare teachers to mentor students in STEM research and coach them in science fair competitions.
Angle attributes the fair’s first- year success at OSU to universitywide support from OSU administrators, college deans, faculty, staff and students. In fact, nearly two dozen Honors College students earned college credit for helping to prepare for and serve as volunteers. Additionally, over 50 faculty, post-doctoral and graduate students served as judges.
To augment the competition, OSU also hosted a Science and Engineering Circuit during the state fair, allowing colleges the chance to showcase their programs. Faculty and graduate students used the circuit to get students excited about the research they are conducting.
“Faculty are always looking for broader impacts for their National Science Foundation grants,” Angle said. “By hosting the state science and engineering fair on the OSU campus, we have the opportunity to bring some really bright students to campus — students who could potentially be our future students. Our STEM faculty are also benefiting from the event. Two faculty have already written NSF proposals incorporating aspects of the science and engineering fair program into their broader impacts. This is a win-win.”
While there are obvious benefits to students who participate in science and engineering fairs, there are hurdles in securing enough funding for these competitions. Angle estimates that a little more than $100,000 is needed each year to ensure that the program is successful without placing a lot of the expenses on student participants. “We want to ensure that all students who qualify to advance to the regional and/ or state levels of competition are not hindered by expensive registration fees,” Angle said.
She is hopeful that a major donor or donors will step up to fund the program for the next five years. If funding is available, the 2020 state science fair is scheduled for March 26-28, 2020.