Teaming up to highlight community service

Published 7:01 am Sunday, March 29, 2015

Vision 2020’s Community Pride and Spirit committee is teaming up with Bremer Bank of Austin to highlight community service in 2015. This month, we are sharing the story of Riverland Community College chemistry instructor Catherine Haslag.

Catherine began judging the local science fair in 2011, shortly after moving from Missouri to Austin. She noticed there were students who could explain their projects—what they did, what happened, why they chose their experiment—but weren’t able to explain the science behind their results. It was apparent some students did not have the support of an adult when they completed their science fair project.

Catherine wanted to do something. She envisioned a program designed to pair students with an adult mentor to help guide them through the process of developing and completing an experiment for the science fair.

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Haslag began talking to friends and community organizations. The Austin chapter of the AAUW, of which Catherine is a member, agreed to help lead the project. A steering committee was formed that included Fred and Carolyn Bogott, Peggy Benzkoffer, and Richard Lemons.

They decided to call the program the Science Fair Mentoring Project. The group wanted to reduce barriers as much as possible so more students were able to participate in the science fair. The committee chose to launch this as an afterschool program at Sumner and Neveln Elementary schools, which have historically been the most underrepresented at the science fair.

The more Catherine and her committee talked with the community, the more the community came together to support this effort. Riverland agreed to host a kick-off activity where third and fourth- graders (approximately 290 students) from Sumner and Neveln Elementary Schools came to the college and participated in an experiment lead by the science faculty.

Ultimately, 14 community organizations agreed to support the program and promote it as a volunteer opportunity. The United Way of Mower County, the Austin Human Rights Commission, Christ Episcopal Church, and the AAUW also provided financial support so experimental supplies and other materials could be purchased for the students to use. Mower Refreshed also donated web space so information about this project could be further disseminated throughout the community. Nearly 100 community members volunteered as mentors, helped with the kick-off at Riverland, shopped for supplies for the students, donated art supplies for the students’ boards, or assisted in a variety of other ways.

“This was truly a community effort,” Catherine stated. “Through their efforts,100 students from Sumner and Neveln were able to complete and present experiments at this year’s STEAM Expo (science fair). In contrast, last year, a total of about 35 students from these two schools participated in the science fair. In addition, these students built positive relationships with adults in the community and were exposed to science in a new way… It’s pretty incredible that all of this just started with an idea.”

Catherine says, “This all began because I noticed a need, developed an idea on how to address it, and started talking to others about it. Think how much better our world would be if everyone did that.”

If you are interested in participating in the Science Fair Mentoring Project during the 2015-16 academic year, please email

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