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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 1, 2010

Science, engineering fair in dire straits

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Neal Atebara was a co-winner of the 1981 Hawaii fair, then placed third in international competition.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Neal Atebara

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The organizers of the statewide science fair still need to raise $5,000 for April's event, but worry more about where they're going to find another $250,000 next year for a program that each year involves 7,000 to 12,000 public and private school children across the Islands.

The 53rd annual Hawai'i State Science and Engineering Fair — to be held April 5 to 7 at the Hawai'i Convention Center — will only happen because of $25,000 in recent donations, which still leaves the Hawai'i Academy of Science $5,000 left to raise.

"Even though we still don't have enough funds, it's next year that I'm really worried about," said Honolulu eye surgeon Dr. Neal Atebara, 45, who was a co-winner of the 1981 fair as a high school senior and is now chairman of the Hawai'i Academy of Science's fund-raising committee.

"This is the biggest crisis in the science fair's 53-year history," Atebara said. "If we fail now, the fair is dead because we don't have any money."

Because of the state's $1.2 billion budget deficit, the Legislature chose to end its $250,000 funding for Hawai'i's oldest and largest science education program, said Bruce Anderson, the former director of the state Health Department, now director of health and science at Hawai'i Pacific University and the incoming president of the Hawai'i Academy of Science, which has organized the science fair for 53 years.

"Assuming we get the contributions we expect, we will be able to get through this science fair," Anderson said. "But that's it."

The Hawai'i Academy of Science is made up of one paid staff member and a board of volunteers.

Every two years, the Hawai'i Academy of Science came to rely on its appropriations from the Legislature, which would flow through the state Department of Education and the Research Corporation of the University of Hawai'i, said UH education professor Irv King, who is education program chairman for the Hawai'i Academy of Science.

"Then the economic situation torpedoed us," King said.

While the statewide science fair occurs only once each year, Anderson said, the $250,000 costs are used throughout every school year to help public and private school teachers prepare their students and to help coordinate smaller science fairs at the school and district levels that lead up to the statewide event, which is a precursor to the annual international science fair held on the Mainland.


Each year, the Hawai'i Academy of Science uses some of its $250,000 science fair budget to fly, feed and house Neighbor Island students and their chaperones so they can come to the fair in Honolulu, as well as to provide prizes.

The academy also pays the way for about 20 students and their chaperones who go on every year to compete in the international science fair.

"We need $150,000, minimum, to put on the fair," Anderson said. "That leaves $100,000 for all the various other ways to support students directly, including their travel, lodging and meals to and from wherever they are."

The statewide fair brings together about 500 students each year.

But 7,000 to 12,000 students — primarily from Hawai'i public schools — start out each year at the school and district levels, Anderson said.

"It's one of the few opportunities they have to get involved in developing a science project," he said. "People don't realize that there's a lot of work involved just getting students to the (statewide) fair."

The Hawai'i State Science and Engineering Fair gives students the chance to present their projects in front of judges who are often amazed at the students' work, Anderson said.

One of last year's finalists produced a model for disease transmission that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention subsequently adopted, Anderson said.

"That's the level that some of these kids are working at," he said. "There are some very sophisticated studies being done. I'm often blown away by these projects."

Using its leftover money from last year, the Hawai'i Academy of Science still found itself $30,000 short to put on this year's fair.

The Queen's Medical Center has since donated $10,000, and Atebara turned a chance solicitation at his home by a solar-panel salesman from RevoluSun into another $10,000 donation.

Atebara — the academy's fundraising chairman — also contributed $5,000 of his own money for this year's fair.

The Hawai'i Academy of Science hardly relied on government funding when it started the science fair more than 50 years ago.

The academy itself was born in 1925 when Hawai'i's sugar growers "recognized the fact that they needed an educated, well-trained workforce," Anderson said. "They wanted to make sure Hawai'i was competitive."

Over the years — as it came to rely on state funding — the Hawai'i Academy of Science continued to welcome donations from individuals, the military and from corporations and organizations such as Hawaiian Electric Co., Tesoro and Chevron.

But with state money cut off, the academy will now depend on donations to keep the science fair running beyond April.

"We're coming full circle," Anderson said. "The state recognized the need for science education and has been good about supporting the science fair. But we're simply at a time now when we have to look elsewhere."