Monday, March 11, 2024

Empowering Minds: A Day of Triumph and Unity at the Science & Engineering Fair

     It was dark and calm as I entered the opulent Melaleuca International Headquarters on Thursday, March 7th. The building was quiet, and I was the only one in the event center. I took a few minutes to myself just to breathe. I had been up since 4:00 a.m., and I intended to go over all the details in the quiet space by myself and enjoy my breakfast smoothie before anyone else arrived.

    Before 8:00, judges started to arrive, just as I knew they would, a little bit early. They were engineers, scientists, psychologists, cybersecurity specialists, and other esteemed volunteers. They were taking time out of their busy schedule to help judge the Idaho Science & Engineering Fair for 6th-12th grade students. There was a low hum of excitement as professionals began meeting each other. They were given name tags and asked to write how the would like to be addressed for the rest of the day. Very few of the esteemed guests chose doctor, professor, Mr. or Mrs., and most wanted to be referred to by their first names. One such intelligent judge recently retired and wanted to be called Jeff. My son, Parker, was very fond of Jeff's wife. She was his kindergarten teacher at White Pine. Parker's 9th grade class at White Pine was the first year we competed in the ID Science & Engineering Fair.

    As I was reminiscing about these sweet memories, the soft low hum that encompassed the event center in the presence of the generous and humble judges changed. It was replaced by the electric charge of the competitors arriving. High school students were first to enter. They came in with a confidence and swagger that is common in high school athletes. Cue the fog machine here...maybe that was actually a cloud of Axe Body Spray. Behind the cloud/fog of Axe, the grand hall at Melaleuca welcomed the younger competitors. Their eyes were a bit scared. They were a bit unsure, tangled with nervous excitement.

    Soon confidence, swagger, fear, uncertainty, and nervous excitement all blended as judges started making their way around the room. Students presented their Science & Engineering projects to an authentic audience. Some had spent months working on their projects, some had spent hours. One White Pine team had tried unsuccessfully to 3D print their project many, many times. They must have ended up with something to present because one of the judges approached me in the hall to tell me how amazing the project was and how marketable the idea was. I swelled with pride, inside only. On the outside I was calm, cool and collected because they judge did not know which school the project originated from. The day went both too slow and too fast.

    Melaleuca staff dimmed the house lights and turned on the stage lights. Not one announcement was made. Exhausted volunteers, students, and teachers made their way to  seating for the awards ceremony. There was a nervous, relieved, excited, and funny vibe in the room. The judges were running late and every time someone walked down an aisle, students erupted in rowdy applause.

    Thirty minutes late, the main judge walked up to the microphone. She apologized and explained that the projects were so good, the judges could not decide on a Best of Fair. You could hear a pin drop. There was no talking. All students faced forward, and there were no phones out. Everyone held on to the words the soft-spoken main judge said. She called up one of the young winners from White Pine 6th grade. The crowd erupted. The CROWD ERUPTED! This crowd leading the ebullient cheering was not from White Pine. The Axe Body Spray high school crowd was applauding and whooping it up for OUR STUDENTS. They all were. The whole crowd, close to 200 people, cheered and shouted his name. They were genuinely sharing in his joy. This single moment will live with me for a good long time. It was powerful. This moment stuck with me more than all the awards White Pine students won that day (and it was impressive. We did really well, y'all!). I was the last one to leave the event center. I double-checked to make sure it was just as clean as when we got there, picked up my untouched breakfast smoothie, and realized I was hungry! 

    Hungry or not, I love being engaged with our students and teachers. I love being a part of a STEM community that believes in giving students opportunities, even if we have to create them. I love being a part of a STEM community where students cheer for winners, even if they are competitors. 

Happy STEM Matters Month, everyone!

By: Heather Smith
White Pine Community Outreach Coordinator, STEM Coordinator and former WP parent 

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