Last year, when he was in sixth grade, Assumption Regional Catholic School student Vito Acosta, of Egg Harbor Township, did a science project testing which lenses work best with solar panels.

The project won him an award at the Jersey Shore Science Fair at Richard Stockton College and a trip to the Delaware Valley Science Fair in Oak, Pa.

“That was huge,” said Acosta, 13, whose first science project in third grade was on wind turbines. “There were a lot of interesting projects. I got to see what the kids older than me are doing.”

The 2014 science fair at Stockton is being held today, and Acosta will be there again. A judge last year asked him how he might implement what he learned, which gave him an idea for this year’s project on how to set up lenses to get the most energy from a solar panel.

“I like to do projects on something useful that might be beneficial to society,” he said.

More than 600 projects by 700 students from 32 schools in Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth and Ocean counties will compete this year at Stockton. The Jersey Shore Science Fair, along with another in Philadelphia, are now the largest of the 13 fairs that feed into the Delaware Valley Science Fair April 2 though 4.

Fifteen years ago, when Cathy Jaggard took over as volunteer director of the Jersey Shore fair, just 50 projects were entered. Now, she is worried she may have to limit entries or expand to a two-day fair to accommodate the projects.

“Every year it increases,” she said. “And the students are placing better at the Delaware Valley Fair.”

Harry Disston, president and executive director of the Delaware Valley Science Fairs, said Jaggard gets a lot of the credit for the local fair’s growth. But, he said, the expansion also reflects a national trend of students doing more project-based learning, and a realization that students can win prizes and scholarships for science projects.

“It’s not just the number but the quality of the projects that is getting very, very good,” Disston said. “It’s a way for these students to stand out in college admissions.”

Jaggard said she remembers posting guides on the website and visiting schools to mentor because so many of the early projects were so sloppy. Now, students are winning scholarships. Most of the local interest is in the middle schools, where students first learn about the scientific method and how to do experiments.

Assumption Regional has 22 students at the Stockton fair this year. Middle school science teacher Sheryl Cordivari said the projects are a class assignment that begins during the summer, when students develop their ideas. They conduct experiments, keep a journal and write a research paper and lab reports, as well as make up the poster-board display with their results. Every student in grades six through eight does a project, and the school holds its own science fair in January during Catholic Schools Week.

“I spend a lot of class time on the science fair,” she said. “It teaches them independent learning, and it’s very hands on.”

She said not every student will become a scientist, but they will learn critical thinking and organizational skills, and how to do an interview, a crucial part of the science fair when judges will ask about the projects.

This year, Assumption Regional eighth-grader Courtney Reed, 14, of Galloway Township, did a model of the human immune system and ran an experiment on the effects of antibodies. Kera Wageley, 12, of Egg Harbor Township, tested whether radishes grew best in a compost tea solution, regular soil or with a commercially prepared fertilizer. She was surprised that the radishes with no fertilizer grew the best, but it made her think that crops might not need chemicals to grow well if the soil is good.

The Belhaven School in Linwood won’t hold the school science fair until June, but 20 seventh-graders are taking a dozen projects to Stockton that they have been working on at home. Science teacher Raquel Law said she reviews their journals and monitors their progress.

“The big science fair does encourage them to get excited,” she said. Projects this year include the effectiveness of sun block and how sound travels around a concert hall.

Jaggard said it can be harder to get traditional high schools involved, though schools that focus on project-based learning have been very successful. Students from High Technology High School and Biotechnology High School in Monmouth County and the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Sciences in Ocean County are typically among the top winners.

Holy Spirit High School has an annual science fair, organized this year by seniors Rita Do, of Atlantic City, and Michelle Moffa, of Linwood. Moffa said she believes the science fair is important because students get to apply their knowledge and work on interview skills. Do likes the planning and organizational side of the event, which this year featured 100 projects by more than 200 students. Seven students are showing their projects at Stockton today.

Volunteer judges are also crucial to the local school and Stockton events. Susan Werner, director of institutional advancement at Holy Spirit, said the science fair gives local businesses a chance to see what students are learning at the school. Jaggard has about 125 judges for the Stockton fair who come from the college, local schools and businesses at the William J. Hughes Technical Center.

“But I can always use more judges,” she said.

Disston said he would like to see more families get as interested in science fairs as they are in athletics as a way for students to earn college scholarships. This year, about $3 million in prizes and scholarships will be awarded at the Delaware Valley Fair.

“These science fair kids are the ones who are going to make a difference in the world,” Disston said. “They’ll be finding the cure for cancer.”

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