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Society Alumni Return to Intel ISEF!

By Caitlin Jennings, Communications Specialist, Society for Science & the Public

More than 200 of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2011 Finalists were already Society alumni, having previously competed at Intel ISEF, or another Society education program (Intel STS and the SSP Middle School Program, now the Broadcom MASTERS). But they were not the only returning alumni; alumni also attended as teachers, fair directors, volunteers, and judges. Here are just a few of the alumni who returned to the Intel ISEF 2011:

Erika DeBenedictis, who competed at Intel ISEF in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 and also won the top award at Intel STS 2010, is now a freshman at Caltech, where she is majoring in physics. She is also working on publishing her award-winning project, a software navigation system that can help improve spacecraft travel through the solar system. Earlier in the year, Erika gave back to her regional fair by volunteering to judge, and she came back to Intel ISEF 2011 to volunteer.  “I always really enjoyed science fair,” she says. “I made a lot of friends here, and it’s really fun to see what’s still going on.” Erika adds that science fair, including Intel ISEF, was some of the most fun she had in high school. “I wish I could spend the whole week here.”

Bob Wisner (ISEF 1958 and 1959), the Director of the Connecticut State Science Fair, got involved with science fairs through his seventh grade science teacher, and he continued researching into high school. It was at ISEF that he met a representative of United Technologies. That first connection helped him get an internship in 1960, which led to a job, and he worked at United Technologies for years until he retired in 1999.  Bob has continued this legacy of connecting Finalists to industry groups as a Special Award judge at Intel ISEF. “Corporate involvement is key,” he says. “I would encourage all corporations to offer internships.”

Fittingly, the same seventh grade science  teacher who got Bob interested in doing projects as a student also encouraged Bob to volunteer for science fairs as an adult, in the 1970s.  He has been involved with the Connecticut State Science Fair ever since, shepherding many alumni of the fair, including Jacob Fox (Intel STS 2002; Intel ISEF 2002) and MacArthur “Genius” Grant Winner Kelly Benoit-Bird (ISEF 1994), on to ISEF.

Lynne Calonico (STS 1969), who is a clinical psychologist with Kaiser Permanente, says that judging at the Intel ISEF has “been on my bucket list since high school.” When competing at science fairs herself, she remembers her and a fellow competitor saying, “You know who has the good gig here, it’s the judges.” While she remembers being a little intimidated being interviewed by many high-powered judges, now, on the other side, she says she is still a bit intimidated because, “the quality of projects has vastly improved over the past 30-40 years.”

Liz Baker (Intel ISEF 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006), recently earned her master’s degree in Evolutionary Psychology and continues to be involved in science fairs as a member of the Southern Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair board. She enjoys coming back to Intel ISEF with her regional fair and helping the students.

“I always give them a judging talk,” Liz says of the Finalists she chaperones during Intel ISEF.  She likes to prepare them for the possibilities and give them confidence. She also stresses that they shouldn’t just run through a long, planned speech, but instead interact, respond to questions, and “show the judges how much you love what you’re doing.”

When Katie (Razer) Parson (ISEF 1996) was a senior in high school, ISEF conflicted with her senior prom, but she made the choice to skip Prom and go to ISEF.  She says, “The week of mingling with the students from around the world, getting to compete in the premier science research competition for high school students, and getting to experience all of the tours, speakers, and other events as ISEF more than made up for missing my senior prom!”

She was inspired to do her research, examining the development of young mice with differing levels of maternal contact, when she heard about babies in orphanages who had developmental problems due to lacking affectionate contact.  “I realized then (both from my background research and from my experiment) how very important it is that developing minds and bodies get the stimulation they need to develop to their full potential physically and intellectually.” She has put that knowledge to use, she says, as both a mother and a teacher, by offering her students “varied instructional methods, interactive audio-visual instruction, and hands-on experiences.”

This year, Katie attended the Intel ISEF with students from the Central Arkansas Regional Science Fair and the Arkansas Science and Engineering Fair. “Returning to [Intel] ISEF as a teacher has been a marvelous experience. I enjoy sharing in the excitement my students feel, as I did 15 years ago,” she says. “Participating in [Intel] ISEF is such an educational and fun experience, for both the teachers and the students!”

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