Austin schools look for science fair mentors

Published 11:43 am Sunday, October 19, 2014

Almost every scientist Catherine Haslag knows had a defining moment when they decided to go into the sciences. Now, the Riverland Community College chemistry teacher is one of several Austin people looking to help local students catch the science bug.

ah.06.19.aNeveln Elementary and Sumner Elementary leaders are looking to give students extra help with science fair projects this school year through a program intended to pair students with an adult mentor to assist the students with their science fair projects.

“We’ve got Mayo [Clinic Health System], Hormel [Foods Corp.], the [Hormel] Institute, Riverland— we have a lot of educated people in this town,” Haslag said. “So I thought, ‘Hey, let’s use some of the people who live here, and maybe we can help those kids out.”

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Leaders are looking to pair adult volunteers with third- and fourth-grade students at Neveln and Sumner to help the students with a project that interests them. The mentors will help students create an experiment and develop a display for the Austin Public Schools Science Fair next March (formally known as the STEAM Expo).

Haslag became a judge for the science fair in 2011. Each year, she’s seen a handful of students who could describe everything about their projects: where their idea came from, how they designed their experiment, and what their results were. However, if the student was asked to tie their project to the scientific concept it addressed, they didn’t have an answer.

“There were some kids who probably didn’t have an adult who was helping them or knew enough about science to,” Haslag said. “I wanted to give those kids an opportunity to fully participate. I thought this was a way to maybe help them out.”

Haslag hopes students who may not have had a chance before might now realize they enjoy science.

“A kid might be interested in [something] they never thought about before just because someone said, ‘Hey you should give this a try,’” Haslag said.

Haslag participated in the science fair in elementary school and described the experience as valuable and educational. She wanted to find a way to help Austin students have a similar opportunity to explore science.

Haslag, Peggy Benzkofer, Carolyn and Fred Bogott, and Richard Lemons are working together to remove barriers so more students can successfully participate in the science fair.

Students at Sumner will have a kickoff event for science fair projects at Riverland in November, with Neveln’s kickoff planned for December. Students will visit the college laboratories, learn about the scientific method, and complete an experiment with guidance from Riverland faculty.

After the kickoff, students will work with mentors on their projects in the months leading up to the science fair, which is scheduled for March. Mentor sessions will be between 2:30 and 4 p.m. at the schools on either Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays.

Haslag hopes to eventually expand the mentorship program to all four Austin elementary schools, but for this first year, organizers wanted to start small.

“We chose those two schools because they have the largest minority populations in the town, and they’re underrepresented at the fair,” she said.

Haslag said several people have contacted leaders to volunteer already, and she hopes more volunteers come forward. Organizers hope to get as close to a one-on-one ratio with students and mentors as possible. She noted the program is open to everyone, regardless of science experience, and she has spread the word through churches, businesses, organizations and the schools. Mentorship hours can be used toward clinical hours for elementary education majors at Riverland.

Mentors can volunteer at any time through February and are not required to go to every scheduled mentoring even, though organizers need to know in advance if mentors will make it to events.

Volunteers are still needed. Mentors must complete orientation and pass a background check. The orientation will include a lesson on the scientific method and information on cultural sensitivity and working with students. For more information or to volunteer, contact Haslag at