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Western Massachusetts science fair showcases innovation from budding scientists

 Milana Camilleri presents her project to a judge at the Massachusetts Science and Engineering Fair 2024.
Basil Pursley
Milana Camilleri presents her project to a judge at the Massachusetts Science and Engineering Fair 2024.

High School age scientists from across Western Massachusetts gathered on Friday for the regional Massachusetts Science and Engineering Fair (MSEF) at Western New England University in Springfield.

Students who participate in the fair are offered opportunities that help advance their scientific careers before they have even entered college.

Elizabeth Hanechak, a junior at Pope Francis Preparatory School, also in Springfield, researched and developed a way to use microorganisms to remove harmful plastics from the environment. She said the biggest benefit to participating in science fairs has been the connections she’s built.

“Just knowing that you’re part of that network, that you’re part of that community of kids who are breaking into science and who are doing research and who are changing the world, is so overwhelming and so exciting,” Hanechak said.

She added that the networking opportunities are particularly important to her as a first generation college student, since it has led her to professional contacts — including a role working in a graduate research lab at UMass Amherst.

Lily Yao, a senior from Miss Hall’s School in Pittsfield, participated in the fair for the first time this year. Yao presented a project on how generative AI can be used to detect river flooding before it even happens.

Yao also emphasized the importance of networking through the science fair.

“I think it’s really good to come here and connect with not only peers but a bunch of adults who are passionate about what you’re doing,” Yao said.

Milana Camilleri, a senior from Westfield High School, presented research on how Covid-19 continues to affect public health, by testing how well antibiotics fight different bacteria. Camilleri said her experience participating in science fairs has helped her get advice for building her projects, as well as access to scholarships.

“Over the course of the years I have been able to develop my project and that’s something I hope to bring to a college next year when developing a thesis,” Camilleri said.

Rebekah Stendahl, the program director for the fair, explained that it provides vital support for young scientists by giving them the space to make mistakes, experiment with their interests and consider what world problems they want to solve.

“I think the science fair is so important because it gives students that base understanding that they need to practice the skills they’re learning in school in a way that’s meaningful to them,” she Stendahl. “They get to pick the topic, they get to be creative and think through how they would solve a problem.”

Stendahl said that alums of the science fair will often reach out and explain how foundational the skills they learned while building their projects for the science fair were for their futures.

The top 40% of projects at the fair will be promoted to the state level and have the chance to move onto nationals in Los Angeles, California. This is the fair's 75th year of running and seeking to advance science and engineering literacy in Massachusetts.

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