The Regional Science & Engineering Fair Program in Mankato has a rich history involving many participating students, parents, teachers, principals, business and community leaders, judges, faculty from neighboring colleges, and MSU administrators, faculty, staff and students – both undergraduates and graduates. In 2011 we celebrated 60 years that the regionals have been hosted by first Mankato State Teachers College, then Mankato State College, then Mankato State University, and then Minnesota State University, Mankato. A big change for 2012 was the option for sixth grade students to compete at either division of our regional fairs. The Minnesota State Science & Engineering Fair is accepting sixth graders to compete at the State Fair. Only sixth graders from the Middle School/Senior High Division will be eligible to advance on to the State competition. Sixth graders may still compete at the Elementary Division; this option is up to the school and families concerned.
The early years of the fair are currently being researched. This task is complicated by the lack of programs in many of the early years, the deaths of key individuals, and the loss of records. If you or your family have information on any of these early years, please contact us. The following narrative, then, is a brief history.
The planning for the first science fair began with Dr. Leonard Ford and his science fair committee in 1951-52 academic year. Dr. Ford was the first director of the program. The fair was held on the lower campus and included exhibits and demonstrations by the faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students of MSU. High school and grade school students were invited to attend this special day at Mankato State.
Dr. Ford continued as director for many years. Dr. Harold Hartzler also served as director during these early years. The fair was held on the lower campus, included high school and grade school students, and was much smaller. The fair continued to be relatively small by today's standards through 1976. During this period the fair had many directors, responsibilities were shared among the departments of biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics, and a variety of sites were used – eventually ending on the upper campus. Some of the directors during this period were Dr. Harold Hartzler, Dr. Bill Edwards, Dr. Bob Graham, and Dr. Bill Rankin. In early 1976, Dr. Bill Bessler became the director and guided the fair during the next twenty years through its period of most active growth (from 275 to over 2,000 student participants.) Throughout the early years the directors accomplished the tasks of preparing for the fairs through committees, or with the help of departmental secretaries, work study students and student help. After much growth, in 1985, through the assistance of Dr. John Frey (then Chair of Biology) and Dr. V. Dean Turner (then Dean of the College), the science fair program was awarded a half-time secretarial/coordinator position and Mary Zernechel, Biology Secretary, filled this position.
In a transitional year (1994-1995), Dr. Bill Bessler and Dr. Gregg Marg were co-directors. Dr. Marg, then, continued to be the director of the fair for nine years until 2003. After eighteen years, Mary Zernechel left her position as science fair secretary/coordinator in 2003. Mr. James Ballard was the director of the fair during the 2003–2004 academic year. Dr. Bessler returned to the director role in 2004–2005 year until his full retirement in 2012. At the end of the 2004 calendar year, Mary Van Duynhoven accepted the science fair secretary/coordinator position and was with the fair until 2012. In 2013 Dr. Shannon J. Fisher accepted the role as fair director and Beth Rorvig moved into the position of K-12 outreach coordinator.
With the move to the upper campus, the fair site also moved. The fair was held in the halls of the new Trafton Science Center, but eventually moved into Highland Arena (now Otto Arena). The junior/senior high students were in the balcony area and the elementary students were on the floor area. The fair was held on one day for all students until 1986. After a near miss by a blizzard and with increased growth, the fair was split into two different fair dates. The Junior/Senior High Fair is usually held annually in February or March; the Elementary Fair is usually held in April or May. As the fair continued to grow and after 1986, the elementary fair continued to be held in Highland Arena, and eventually grew so that Otto Arena, the indoor field house (now Myers Field House), and Highland North addition gymnasium (now Schellberg Gymnasium) all had to be used in order to accommodate the Elementary Fair. The Junior/Senior High Science Fair moved to and is currently held in the Student Union.
Along the way, the fair became affiliated with the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF). In the beginning, two students and their teachers/sponsors were given the opportunity to compete internationally. In 1978, as MSU hosted two regions, four students were able to participate. Since 1984 the fair has been able to send eight students to the Intel ISEF. In 2005, the first dual project won at the regional level and ten students and teachers attended the Intel ISEF in Phoenix, Arizona. As of 2011 Intel ISEF allotted a total of eight projects, individual or team, to be sent from our region. As Intel ISEF has grown, our allotted number has fallen to three projects, but we have been able to successfully appeal and bring a total of six projects since 2012.
The fair held many titles over the years. Before state regional boundaries were made the title "South Central Science Fair" was used. Later, when state regional boundaries were estebalished, the southern portion of the state was split into two regions: Southwestern and Southeastern. Mankato State College, as it was then known, hosted the Southwest Fair. In the early 70's the Southwestern Fair was split into two regions – Southwest (hosted by briefly by Southwest State) and South Central (hosted by Mankato State College). By 1974 Mankato hosted both the Southwest and South Central MN regions. For two years (1976–1978) Lakefield hosted the Southwest Fair and then the Southwest Region returned to MSU. In 1984, the regional affiliation with Intel ISEF increased as the Southwest and South Central regions were divided into North and South. Minnesota State University, Mankato continued to host the two state regions (SW/SC) and four Intel ISEF affiliated regions (SWN, SWS, SCN, SCS) up until 2010. In 2011 ISEF combined our regions into one identity and name, South Central/Southwest Minnesota Regional Science & Engineering Fair. In 2013, our name was shortened to Southern Minnesota Regional Science and Engineering Fair.
It has been exciting to see the growth of the fair. Hundreds of volunteers (judges, coordinators, etc.) help with the fair annually. For students grades 3-6, the regional fair is the climax of their year-long activities. Grades 6-12 are eligible to continue on to the state fair and grades 9-12 are eligible to compete in the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair and/or the International Sustainable World (Energy, Engineering and Environment) Project Olympiad. For many students, the science fair program has been the beginning of a life-long fascination with science or an introduction to a science-related career. For judges and adult volunteers, science fair days provide an opportunity to mentor students and visit with colleagues in their discipline, as well as renew acquaintances.