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From Science Fair Participant to Judge

ESF student climbs the ranks of the Environmental Challenge

When hundreds of students from the Syracuse City School District came to the 12th Environmental Challenge science fair at ESF March 13, they were ready to answer questions from the judges. One of the judges was perhaps more tuned into what the students were experiencing than others.

Jacob O'Connell, a sophomore environmental science major, was once one of those young scientists awaiting the judges' critique.

"The first science fair I participated in was the ESF/SCSD Environmental Challenge," said O'Connell. As an eighth grader at Clary Middle School, his project focused on alternative energy from fruit.

The Environmental Challenge is designed to encourage student projects that support and extend the seventh/eighth-grade science curriculum and increase student exploration and understanding of the urban environment and its relationship to the global environment.

"This was one of the first years they did the challenge, it was very small," O'Connell said. "All of the students gathered in Marshall Hall auditorium where Dave Eichorn talked about climate change. This was long before the Dome even, and they had projects in a few buildings, including the basement of Moon."

Since its inception in 2001, the Environmental Challenge has grown to more than 500 participants from the Syracuse City School District. The event is now held on the field of the Carrier Dome.

O'Connell went on to attend high school at the Institute of Technology in Syracuse where he also took ESF in the High School classes in global environment and biophysical economics during his senior year.

He and his fellow global environment classmates helped judge the Environmental Challenge. During that year, the high school students also had to present projects at what is now called the ESF in the High School Environmental Summit.

Serving as a judge proved to be as much a learning experience for O'Connell as it did for the junior high students.

"Judging as a high school student was interesting because it was a time when we (my global class and I) were in the process of working on our own research projects for global," he said. "We were new to conducting experiments on our own, so it was neat to be relatively new to real scientific inquiry but still able to give other people advice. I think judging that year helped me solidify some concepts about inquiry, and what makes a good project and what doesn't."

When O'Connell enrolled in ESF in fall 2011, he again found himself assisting with the Environmental Challenge, this time helping the staff of ESF's Department of Outreach.

While much of his time was spent on behind-the-scenes work, O'Connell found time to judge a few projects.

"It's very cool to see what the kids come up with and how excited they are about their projects - especially the ones that are really into in. I think it's neat because I can remember being in those shoes a few years ago and all the people that helped me get where I am and then being able to give that to someone else."

O'Connell was one of 120 people serving as judges for the Environmental Challenge. The judges came from the ranks of ESF faculty, staff, students and partnering agencies and educational institutions. This is the largest number of judges the science fair has had, according to Dr. Richard Beal, Assistant Dean for Educational Outreach and Credit Programs in the Office of Outreach.

"It's really great when so many different groups can collaborate for the kids " said Beal.