For three days in May, people pour into a building on the Yale University campus for one of the biggest events arranged by the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. But this is not a typical chamber event. When participants discuss “data,” they are not comparing cell phone plans. Likewise, “boards” have nothing to do with business leaders. That’s because the participants, more than 1,000 students in an annual city-wide science fair, display “project boards” and explain data from their experiments to a team of judges.
This isn’t your average science fair. Rather than concentrating on students in certain grades, as many fairs do, this one welcomes participants from preschool all the way to twelfth grade. A recent kindergarten group project was “Germs – A Closer Look at Hand-Washing.”
And the science fair’s reach extends far beyond the event itself to include mentoring opportunities, teacher training and events designed to interest students and their parents in the scientific process.
While Yale is one of the top universities for turning out Fortune 500 CEOs, nearly a quarter of the families in New Haven have incomes below the poverty level, according to city-data.com, and another 20 percent are near the poverty level ($24,250 for a family of four). For many of the city’s kids, the science fair is a rare extra-curricular opportunity.
Since 2007, the science fair program has been overseen and administered by the chamber. The program consultant, Maureen Coelho, is a part-time chamber employee whose salary is paid by grants to the chamber’s foundation. All expenses—about $100,000—are covered by grants and donations, although the chamber contributes in numerous intangible ways. And despite the unconventional path that led to the partnership with the chamber, those closest to the program say it would be difficult to duplicate the benefits the unique arrangement offers.
If results can be measured by uplifting anecdotes, the science fair is a success. Coelho recalls the time one student was inspired to build a working robot—even though the only way to acquire necessary parts was to dig through neighborhood trash. Another time, a special needs student received a third place trophy and hoisted it up, with tears in his eyes and TV cameras rolling.
New Haven’s science fair program began in 1994, more than a decade before the chamber started overseeing it. The program grew out of a federal grant designed to get fairs started in areas with underserved populations, says Coelho. For many years, it was administered by another not-for-profit where she worked. Ultimately, that organization decided to focus on state-wide programs, rather than those affecting one city, says Jack Crane, a member of the New Haven Science Fair steering committee and volunteer Project Director for the fair. By day, Crane is director of growth and innovation services for ConnStep, a nonprofit consulting group assisting Connecticut manufacturers in becoming more competitive.
Crane fervently believed in the program and knew he needed to find another 501(c)(3) organization willing to take it on. After all, he says, “urban education in America has been in
crisis for some time.” African-American and Hispanic students, who make up the majority of the New Haven school system’s population, “consistently perform poorly using any type of criteria you want for educational success and attainment,” he notes. And, with a large high school drop-out rate in New Haven, “in an age where it’s more and more important to be educated at a higher level,” he says, the city’s youth too often end up “dead, in jail or in a not very good place.”
Not only do these outcomes take a heavy toll on the students themselves, but they also have implications for the workforce and the state’s economy, say proponents of the science fair program. Even for students who don’t go on to work in scientific fields, the program offers a chance to learn life skills. Participants learn to explain their work to adults. And, Crane says, they gain confidence because they have an opportunity to share their knowledge and expertise with judges who are scientists.
When Crane went looking for another administrator, the chamber seemed like a natural fit. A person with ties to Yale, who worked with the steering committee, also served on the chamber’s board of directors. Chambers have a natural interest in helping to create a top-notch workforce, and the chamber already had a foundation through which donations and grants could be collected. In addition, chambers “bring diverse groups of people together,” says Crane, something that was critical to the ongoing success of the program. Partners include New Haven Public Schools, Yale University, other local colleges and universities, and businesses in scientific, pharmaceutical and engineering fields.
“The science fair program would have floundered if it hadn’t been for Tony,” says Coelho, referring to Tony Rescigno, president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. Coelho joined the chamber team in 2012 after taking a hiatus from the science fair program for a few years. Indeed, the partnership with the chamber offers many benefits, both tangible and intangible:
But the infrastructure offered by the chamber goes far beyond meeting space and hardware, Coelho explains. The entire staff pitches in “with a lot of administrative support, moral support and publicity,” she says. For example, she would not be able to get all of the winners’ certificates printed in two hours were it not for the chamber’s graphic designers, she says. The finance department helps cut checks for winners of special prizes, as well as for vendors who supply food to the event itself and supplies, such as project boards. Other employees assist with set-up on the day of the fair; still others provide publicity and advertising assistance.
The relationship is beneficial to the chamber, too. The high-profile program provides plenty of public relations value to the organization and the business community as a whole. “Members are proud of it,” says Rescigno. “The thing that motivated me initially [to get involved] was that we needed to take a leadership role in education and how kids are being educated,” he says. “We wanted to make sure we had an impact. We have to get these kids interested because they’re our future workforce.” At the same time, helping out students and witnessing their success is “very rewarding,” he says.
STEM has Deep Roots
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education programs in schools and communities nationwide. Sometimes the acronym includes an extra M for manufacturing or an extra A for arts. Many of these programs are organized or supported by chambers of commerce. Here’s a small sampling of chamber STEM initiatives:
The New Haven science fair program aims to promote scientific literacy and to provide a sense of excitement related to learning and using hands-on science, according to its web site. At the same time, it wants to help students “develop skills in critical thinking and communications” and increase the number of students taking math and science in high school and post-secondary environments.
Coelho says the program is successful because of its multi-faceted approach. The fair itself is actually the culmination of a months-long process designed to get students and teachers
excited about science and to educate them about the scientific process. The program gets under way each fall with 10 to 12 Family Science Nights at elementary schools selected by the school district administration. Volunteers conduct fun, hands-on scientific experiments; each school also receives a small stipend for snacks.
Additionally, the science fair program offers training to teachers on advanced topics in nanotechnology and manufacturing technology to enhance projects and prepare students through its partners, Southern Connecticut State University and Yale’s Center for Research on Interface Structures and Phenomena. These include three-day summer workshops.
But one of the program’s most complex facets is the recruitment and training of mentors, who work with students and teachers on individual or group projects throughout the school year. Last year, 68 mentors came from universities and private businesses; the majority came from Yale, says Coelho. Another part-time chamber employee, Dr. Sujit Joginpally, serves as science fair mentor coordinator.
As for the event itself, Coelho and the steering committee must train and recruit 250 volunteer judges, arrange a venue, order food, provide translators for students who don’t speak English, plan an awards ceremony and attend to countless other logistical details. In the end, though, what keeps them going is the desire, as Coelho puts it, “to level the playing field” in math and science for the city’s schoolchildren. Says Crane, “One of the things the science fair brings to them is hands-on relevance” and a connection to future fields of study or careers.
Crane recalls three female high school students who said they weren’t interested in science—until they were connected with a mentor from Yale who helped them study seals along the Atlantic coast. All three attended college, and two of them majored in science, he says proudly.
New Haven Public Schools at a Glance:
Number of Schools: 48
Number of Students: 21,500
Demographics: 42 percent African-American, 41 percent Hispanic, 14 percent white, 2 percent Asian American, 1 percent, “other.”
Graduation Rate: 75.4 percent in 2014, up from 58.1 percent in 2009
Free and Reduced Price Lunch Enrollment: 77.9 percent (2012)
Sources: www.nhps.net and Federal Education Budget/New America Foundation
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