EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this article originally appeared on SooToday on Feb. 6. It is being republished here for readers who may have missed it.
The once-popular Rotary Algoma STEM Fair, also known as the citywide science fair, could be forced to fold its event this year due to a lack of interest, SooToday has learned.
For 34 years, the fair has invited students in grades 7-12 from both school boards to present their independently studied science projects to judges, their peers, and the general public.
Cash prizes, certificates and scholarships have long been awarded to students who excel at the friendly competition.
Typically hosted at the George Leach Centre, the STEM Fair, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, was averaging around 100 elementary and high school students each year prior to the pandemic, according to organizers.
The science fair was put on pause for two years during the pandemic and went virtual in 2022 before returning to an in-person event last year.
Dante Carlascio, chair of the Rotary Algoma STEM Fair, told SooToday their participation numbers plummeted when just seven students in Sault Ste. Marie submitted projects to the citywide event in 2023. He noted this year’s turnout isn’t looking any better.
“We’ve been struggling,” Carlascio said. “We used to get tons of projects and students at the George Leach up until 2019. The quality of last year’s projects was fantastic, but the quantity just wasn’t there. It didn’t give students a chance to see each other’s projects or to learn from anyone else. It wasn’t as fun as years past.”
Carlascio explained there are mounting fears they may have to reduce the size of the event or fold the fair altogether if they can't get schools in the Algoma and Huron-Superior Catholic boards to sign on.
As of last week, Korah Collegiate appeared to be one of the only schools that committed to entering their students to the citywide event by hosting their own science fair this year.
“We asked [the school boards] to let us know their interest level by Christmas break, and that’s come and gone,” he said. “We’ve reached out to all the principals, the STEM liaisons, and a lot of the responses have been: ‘Thanks for contacting us, we’ll pass that on.’ This event isn’t going to happen unless we get their support.”
What’s at stake if the fair is forced to fold?
According to the chair, students from the Sault would have little to no opportunities to qualify for the Canada-wide science fair, and scholarship opportunities for Grade 12 students through the event would no longer be possible.
“Last year, we had no Grade 12 entrants,” Carlascio said. “If we just had a [graduating student] submit some project that basically met the criteria, here’s $1,000 to go to Algoma University or $1,000 to go to the University of Ottawa.”
“Out of the over 100 regional fairs in Canada, we’re one of the only ones that’s run by a service club like Rotary,” he added. “The rest are all run by the school boards. Rotarians and other volunteers put this together every year. Thanks to things like the Take Your Pick Draw, Rotaryfest, and Bell Celebrity Skate, the [science fair] is one of several things that money we raise goes back to.”
In an email issued to SooToday, Algoma District School Board’s superintendent of education Marcy Bell said they recognize the challenges events like the Rotary Algoma STEM Fair is facing.
“ADSB is proud of our commitment to community partnerships and experiential learning opportunities beyond the classroom and value events such as the Rotary Science Fair,” she wrote. “We focus on offering a variety of community-based experiences for students who have an interest in these areas.”
“We recognize across our community, there are many initiatives that were impacted over the past several years,” she continued. “We welcome the opportunity to work in partnership with organizations, so that we can be responsive to the current context to promote and encourage community connections.”
SooToday attempted to reach out to the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board for comment, but a response was not received in time for publication.
“You’re not going to get many students doing this on their own time and looking into entering the fair,” Carlascio said. “It’s easier when it’s introduced in the classroom. Almost 100 per cent of the cases we’ve had with the larger fair is participation from school-run elementary and high school fairs.”
Responding to the situation by email this week, Mayor Matthew Shoemaker is encouraging students citywide to consider entering this year’s science fair.
“The Rotary Algoma STEM Fair has served as an important venue for local youth to further development of skills related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and doing so helps students better understand the related career paths,” he wrote. “Considering the many opportunities in the STEM-based economies, I hope students will consider participating in the fair. We’ve seen other events take some time post-pandemic to reach previous levels of participation, and I hope that will be the case with the Rotary Algoma STEM Fair.”
The fair is tentatively scheduled to take place at the George Leach Centre from Apr. 11-13. Students who excel will be eligible to compete at the Canada-wide science fair in Ottawa from May 25 to Jun. 1.
"It's not going to happen unless schools and school boards participate," Carlascio reiterated. “We’ve booked a couple classrooms at Algoma as a backup space. There’s a lot of talent here in the city, and we see that in STEM and science. We’re really hoping for a push here.”