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Waco ISD students excel at local science and engineering fair

ATLAS student The undervalued if not arcane world of school science fairs is steadily becoming more commonplace at Tennyson Middle’s ATLAS Academy, and teachers like Leslie Cannon are beyond thrilled to witness the increased student participation in the important, but time-consuming, academic activity.

In just three short years, the campus science fair has grown from only one student participant in 2018 to 40 students representing 24 projects this year. The number of students advancing to the state competition is also on the rise.

“In 2018 we had one student progress to the State of Texas Science & Engineering Fair from the Central Texas Science & Engineering Regional Fair (CTSEF) held at TSTC,” said Cannon, who teaches 7th-grade research and mini-courses at ATLAS Academy. “Last year we had five students progress to state.”

Out of the 40 ATLAS Academy students who participated this year, 28 qualified to compete at the regional CTSEF to be held February 18-19, 2020, at Texas State Technical College (TSTC).

The ATLAS Academy students compete in the junior division, but the regional fair is open to students in grades 6-12 and includes a senior division for high school. With the increased interest in the science fair at ATLAS Academy, students are already thinking about participating in high school, Cannon said.

“Our 8th-grade students are looking forward to continuing to compete in the senior level Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) competitions in high school,” Cannon said. And since ATLAS Academy is currently the only Waco ISD school participating in the regional science fair, she is hoping to offer faculty workshops over the summer to encourage other teachers to implement the science fair curriculum at their campuses.

“This workshop will be comprehensive,” she said.

In addition, the CTSEF directors host a workshop for teachers throughout central Texas each September that focuses on ideating, rules changes and using the Scienteer system to track and guide projects.

ATLAS Academy has a required research class, and all students are required to complete a research project from one of three competitions: National History Day, International Science and Engineering Fair, or Advanced Products and Performances, Cannon explained.

By helping other teachers better understand the rules, guidelines, requirements, categories, research methods, deadlines and timelines of the regional and state organizations, both governed by the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), Cannon will hopefully help mitigate the barriers to entry for others.

After all, organizing a science fair and leading students through the process can seem a bit daunting or intimidating when the rules booklet is over 45 pages in length. However, once the guidelines are understood and ultimately mastered, the process seems more attainable.

“The biggest barrier is time and access to scientific mentors. This is why acknowledging and encouraging mentors who have helped our students is huge. We love mentors!” said Cannon.

But following guidelines, conducting research and assembling projects is only part of the fun. The actual competition begins at the campus level with the school-hosted science and engineering fair.

Faculty, professional engineers and scientists from the community volunteer to help judge the student projects and determine who will advance to the regional competition. Those placing 1st, 2nd or 3rd in one of the 22 categories in the local fair may advance to the CTSEF, the 13-county regional fair held at TSTC.

For the 40 ATLAS Academy students who participated this year, their curiosity and interest led to a diverse range of study, covering more than half of the 22 ISEF categories.

“Their experiments cover subject areas from piezoelectricity to oral health to water purification,” Cannon said. “They will be competing in 13 different ISEF categories.”

Students must recognize the many benefits from participating in the science fair, including, developing their research and critical thinking skills, learning to analyze information, becoming better problem solvers, and hopefully, as a result, they are nurturing a lifelong interest in science and engineering.

The only requirement to get started is a desire to participate and a spark of curiosity.

“Participation in the science and engineering fair is critical to developing a culture of inquiry in our students at a developmental stage when they are learning to synthesize and analyze information,” Canon said.

So, you might ask, what has caused the growing interest in science fair on one middle school campus?

Canon is quick to credit the generous gift of time provided by a long list of mentors, including:

  • Faculty from ATLAS Academy and Tennyson Middle School (research, science, social studies and mathematics departments)
  • Brazos River Authority
  • Baylor University Department of Biology
  • Marty Harvill, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer of Biology, Baylor University Department of Biology, and his students,
  • Baylor University Energy and Renewable Systems Laboratory,
  • Texas State Technical College Automotive Department,
  • Waco Mammoth National Monument,
  • Waco-McLennan County Library, and
  • Campus leadership


In addition to helpful mentors, Cannon credits the campus administration.

“Supportive leadership makes a huge difference in STEM participation,” she said.

And, in case you’re wondering, the answer is no, you don’t have to peer through large, horn-rimmed glasses, wear pants high above the waistline or be socially awkward, to participate…All it takes is a curious mind.


Mary Henderson Senter

February 19, 2020