By Annette Taylor, Waikato Times
Published September 23, 2010, in Waikato Times, www.waikatotimes.co.nz
WAIKATO, NEW ZEALAND—It's the grin on the faces of the students as they discover they're winners that makes it all worthwhile for Rosalie McGowan.
For 24 years she has been the "chief cook and bottle washer" of the Waikato Science Fair. When pressed, she calls herself the chairperson and is quick to point out it's an event that continues through the involvement of many, including her husband Alec and daughter Helen.
"This year," says Alec, who is a scientist at AgResearch, "I didn't put up a single table. Sometimes it feels like I put them all up. But we had a good gang of people helping this time."
But what is needed, he says, is someone to take over the management of the event.
Rosalie agrees that it has all got a bit much but the self-confessed science fair addict is reluctant to call it quits.
"Here I am saying I need a break, I need to find someone to carry it on, but then I see these little kids coming to the prize-giving with huge grins all over their faces. And for many of these eager little beavers, it hooks them into science for life."
All three of the McGowan children entered the fairs, and daughter Helen won twice.
"As part of my fifth form science project I spent a day up at the university, in the analytical lab, using the atomic absorption instrument, testing for lead and road dust," Helen says. "Up until then I wanted to be an architect. I ended up going to university, and, 12 years ago, got a job as a technician at Hill Laboratories, where I've been ever since."
This year's fair was held at the Hamilton Gardens last month. Since the fairs began in the Waikato 32 years ago, they have been organised with help from the Kiwanis of Hamilton.
This year's event featured 320 entries, mainly from year 7 to 10 students, and required 32 judges to cast their eye over exhibits which included a model volcano with lahar, a working trebuchet and a mounted cat skeleton.
Rosalie has been involved with science fairs, in some form or another, since she took part in the fourth fair held in New Zealand, in 1964.
"I lived near a swamp at the bottom of Portland Rd, Auckland, and an old willow had been struck by lightning, and was full of bugs. My exhibit was the first to appear on television, in black and white."
The following year she worked on a project involving gambusia, where she dissected the tiny fish under a magnifying glass. For this she got her first prize, third place, and was hooked on science fairs.
"I did a BSc in zoology and chemistry at Auckland university, but found that, being female, there were many science related careers I couldn't pursue. So I became a teacher."
In 1986 she took a job teaching science at Waikato Diocesan, where she still works.
"I went to a science teachers' meeting, and people were talking about the science fair, someone was just stepping down. So I thought, I know about putting these things on, I'll give it a go."
With fellow science teacher Roger Cox, she got stuck in and the two focused on the teaching aspect, while the Kiwanis did the rest.
In those days the show was a very different beast.
"It wasn't anything like it is now. There weren't as many entries, and it was a matter of newsprint over trestle tables, and projects in boxes, but it was still a well-run event."
But, over the years, people who have been involved have been unable to keep going for various reasons.
"I look after the sponsorship, liaise with schools, I'm the treasurer, organise the fair on the day, and the prizegiving. I help with the cleanup afterwards, and then still have to send thanks to my sponsors and send out participation cards. It's all started to get a bit much. We've asked for someone else to give a hand and so far, no one has been forthcoming."
These days entries are restricted.
"We have limited room we can use. We actually used to be bigger, with maybe 400 entries, and there were more senior exhibits."
Senior students, and teachers, are now too busy with internal assessment due to NCEA, to take part in the fair, she says.
"They don't have the time or energy anymore. This year we had eight senior entries, previously we'd have around 100. This is a real concern. I can see a time coming when it will be limited to younger students."
To the criticism that students are forced to take part, Rosalie is philosophical.
"Many schools say this is part of our curriculum, you have to do a project. In a way, it makes students take part, and makes them think logically and put something together. But I've always maintained if you can get a child to become involved voluntarily, you've got a child interested in science for the rest of their life. Coercion doesn't work so well and the parents really don't like having something hanging over their heads when they want to go on holiday. But it's not something we can do anything about."
In 2009 Rosalie received a civic award from Hamilton City Council. She loves science, and especially seeing new generations becoming equally enthused.
"These little kids come up to me, with their gizmos and gadgets and things. In past times businesses have picked up on some of these ideas, and gone off and made them.
"Many things have been invented because of science fairs." There's a real possibility, unless someone steps up, that there won't be one next year," she says.
"And that would be a real shame."
Oct 11 2010, 10:53 AM