By Hannah Mason, Assistant Editor
The annual Regional Science and Engineering Fair will be held at West Liberty on Saturday, Feb. 27. Between 70 and 100 middle school and high school students, grades six through 12, from eight eligible counties in Ohio and West Virginia, are expected to display their science projects and compete for prizes. The event will be held in Campbell Hall of Health Sciences, with an awards ceremony in College Hall, according to the science fair’s webpage under the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
This year, the science fair is sponsored by Southwestern Energy, the third largest producer of natural gas in the continental United States. According to Dr. Zachary Loughman, Assistant Professor of Biology and Co-Director of the Regional Science and Engineering Fair, this sponsorship is providing the fair with the ability to grant monetary awards to the first, second, and third place winners this year.
The Southwestern Energy sponsorship will also fund and support the fair’s overall winner, who will win a trip to California to attend the annual Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) this May. In recent years, the West Liberty science fair has sent Wheeling high school students Miriam Demasi and Vincent O’Leary to Intel ISEF, where they actually had a chance to compete and earned national awards and full-ride scholarships to college.
Thanks to an affiliated with ISEF, there are numerous prizes that student competitors can win, Loughman said, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Army, Navy, and more.
Winners are declared in each of the twelve categories in either applied sciences or biology, as well. According to Loughman, medicine and health tends to be one of the most popular categories for student projects, depending upon the year, alongside projects in environmental science, chemistry, and physics.
Judges at the fair will include scientists and educators from around the Ohio Valley, from professors at either West Liberty University or Bethany College, to retired science teachers and industry professionals.
According to Loughman, the Regional Science and Engineering Fair has been held at West Liberty for over 50 years and is one of the oldest science fairs of its kind in the country.
Loughman, known for his work in crayfish ecology, started out his own science career competing in the fair himself starting in the seventh grade and through high school. Naturally, his projects all involved working with animals. His seventh grade project studying the microscopic protozoans he found in pond water, which earned him first place in the zoology category that year, led to later projects dealing with fish, salamanders, and other animals.
“My introduction to crayfish technically was my ninth grade science fair project,” Loughman said, “because I did a project with crustaceans.”
Loughman admits that he as a unique perspective on the science fair, having competed in it as a student himself and now operating it as co-director alongside WLU Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Theunis van Aardt. “I know what it’s like to be the thirteen-year-old kid standing by the board, all nervous as the professor walks up,” Loughman said, “and now I know what it’s like to be the professor walking up to the thirteen-year-old kid, so I’ve kind of gone completely full circle with it.”
“I know that when I participated in the science fair,” Loughman said, “it was like my little Super Bowl. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t catch a ball, but I could definitely discuss the impacts of water quality on salamanders and why that was ultimately important to society, so having a venue to do that was really, really important to me.”
“And so here I am now at West Lib, and Professor of the Year and all that jazz, and all that started when I was a student at John Marshall preparing my science fair project,” said Loughman, “and so that’s what I like about the fair, that I am giving those kids a place to have a voice.”