City of Lacey refocuses fair on science, technology

jdodge@theolympian.comApril 1, 2014 

Goodbye Lacey Alternative Energy Fair. Hello Lacey Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Fair.

The city of Lacey and its many partners for the past 15 years are changing up a community event the first Saturday in May to better reflect the changing times and trends in education.

In 1998, when the Lacey Alternative Fuel Fair arrived on the scene, the races in electric cars built by high school students, electric and hybrid car exhibits and solar power displays were cutting edge stuff, and drew quite a crowd of curiosity seekers.

In the early years of the fair, it wasn’t unusual on a nice spring day to get several thousand folks out to Huntamer Park for the electric car races and other festivities. In 2008, the fair was refocused to highlight alternative energy, not just alternative fuels, but even that wasn’t enough to restore strong interest and attract fair visitors.

“In the last couple of years, fair attendance has dwindled,” noted Lacey Parks and Recreation supervisor Jeannette Sieler. “Solar power and electric cars have gone mainstream.”

Some of the longtime supporters of the Lacey fair, including former Lacey mayor and habitual community volunteer Graeme Sackrison, got together this past year and brainstormed new ideas for the fair. That’s when plans were made for a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) Fair.

“We wanted to bring back some of the “gee whiz” ideas the fair once represented, and focus more on student education,” Sackrison said.

STEM is one of those buzz phrases in education these days. These are the fields where job growth is expanding the fastest in Washington state. According to a variety of studies, there’s a big gap between the jobs and the educational training to fill them.

A group of education, business, political and community leaders combined forces three years ago to raise awareness about this missed economic opportunity. They call themselves Washington STEM and here’s what they have to say to make their point:

Our state ranks first in the nation in the creation of STEM-related jobs and fourth in technology-based corporations. However, we drop to 46th in enrollment in science and engineering graduate programs.

Without a dramatic change in the status quo, some 45,000 STEM jobs will not be filled by the state work force in the next four years due to lack of qualified candidates.

Only 45 percent of the state’s fourth-graders and 40 percent of the eighth-graders scored proficient or above in math on the 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress. The success rate in science was even lower — 35 percent — in 2009. The state’s achievement gaps in math and science haven’t improved in the past decade and rank 12th highest in the nation.

It’s not just students and job candidates who are lacking: The state universities aren’t producing enough teachers to teach science, technology, engineering and math in the coming years, leading to a shortage of nearly 1,000 STEM teachers statewide.

With this huge disconnect between STEM opportunity and reality serving as a backdrop, Lacey fair organizers are crafting a fair that calls on older students and area STEM-related businesses to share with younger students and their families how STEM is shaping the future, Sieler said.

Some of the planned activities include:

Robotics demonstrations by local high school teams, including the Olympia School District’s FIRST Robotics Competition Team 4450, which advanced last weekend to FRC regional competition set for April 11-12 in Portland, and the district’s FIRST Tech Challenge team, Oly Cow, which has already qualified for the FTC nationals in St. Louis, Mo., April 23-26.

Air-powered rocket launches with teachers explaining the math behind the rockets.

Display of an airplane built by Bush Middle School students.

STEM-related exhibits by South Sound businesses.

And back by popular demand — The Lacey Grand Prix electric car races featuring electric cars built by high school students and hobbyists racing on a one-half mile oval, racking up as many laps as they can in one hour. The car races are set for 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.

The STEM Fair runs from 9 a.m.-3 p.m., May 3, at Huntamer Park, 618 Woodland Square Loop SE, Lacey. Admission is free.

There is still room for more businesses and school groups to sign up and participate. For more information, contact Jeannette Sieler at jsieler@ci.lacey.wa.us or 360-438-2631.

The folks in Lacey are out to prove that once-successful community fairs don’t just fade away — they reinvent themselves.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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