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Students, Guided By Teachers, Build the Impossible at Houston Science Fair

Photos by Tuhin Dey

Posted March 7, 2017 – On stage at the University of Houston’s Cullen Performance Hall, Karan Jerath spoke to the junior high and high school students in the audience as “one science fair kid to another.”

“Don’t believe anyone who tells you what you’re doing right now is impossible,” said Jerath, who won the international Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award in 2015. He got his start at the Science and Engineering Fair of Houston, just like these students at the awards ceremony for this year’s event.

Jerath thanked his chemistry and science fair teacher at Friendswood High School, Theresa Lawrence. She was sitting among the recent student winners during the ceremony on February 28.

“She has guided me and stood by my side since the very beginning,” Jerath said.

Casey Curry, the event emcee and a meteorologist for KTRK Channel 13, told the students to thank their version of Ms. Lawrence.

Teachers provide the platform for students to obtain necessary 21st century skills and knowledge so they can be successful in STEM careers, said Heather Domjan, executive director of the Science and Engineering Fair of Houston. Domjan, a former elementary school science teacher, also serves as clinical assistant professor of science education at the UH College of Education and interim executive director of the UH STEM Center.

“Doctors, scientists, mathematicians, engineers in part become who they are because of teachers,” she said. “The mission to attract, retain and inspire students in STEM fields is vital to assist them in making key connections for workforce solutions.”

In her college courses, Domjan urges aspiring science teachers to share information with students about STEM careers and degree requirements. She also encourages problem-based learning, key to helping students understand the creativity and tools used to conduct scientific research.

More than 900 students from 117 public and private schools in the greater Houston region competed in late February in the 58th annual Science and Engineering Fair of Houston, presented by Chevron. The fair, one of the largest in the nation, drew about 500 industry judges and 180 volunteers to the UH campus.

Karen Rawls, of Chevron, congratulated the 389 winning students.

“We know you’re the innovators and the future of our country,” she said.

The students’ projects covered a range of complex and important topics, including “Do electronic screens impact low-light vision?”, “Garlic breath is good for you,” “Variation in polymer formulation” and “Making driving in school zones safer.”

For his winning project in 2015, Jerath designed a subsea device to help prevent catastrophe from oil spills.

Lawrence, a science teacher for more than three decades, said students learn critical workforce skills by doing independent research as they do participating in the science fair.

“They’re allowed to investigate things that are interesting to them, from behavioral science to business to math – they’re pulling in all the STEM fields and many of the fine arts fields,” Lawrence said.

The fair’s co-sponsors include UH’s STEM Center, College of Education, College of Technology, Cullen College of Engineering, and College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

Lela Lemke, a freshman at the Academy for Science and Health Professions in the Conroe Independent School District, said her project stemmed from her own struggle to tune musical instruments. She tried to create a mathematical equation to tune a trombone and wind chimes. Although she didn’t find an equation that worked, Lemke wasn’t discouraged.

“It’s a good base for next year,” she said.

Jerath’s winning project also took two years.

–By Ericka Mellon