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Students display scientific skills


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POSTED: Wednesday, April 08, 2009

After listening to Punahou junior Eric Liaw describe his science fair project on gold nanoparticles, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye whispered, "If I were in his class, I'd flunk.

"He's like a professor — bing, bing, bing," Inouye said, referring to Liaw's lucid explanation of his complex project: "Bio-Nano Nano Assembly of Enzyme-Bound Gold Nanoparticles Using Glutathione Reductase from Saccharomyces cerevisiae."

Inouye was one of the celebrity judges yesterday for the 52nd Hawaii State Science & Engineering Fair, which opens to the public today in the Blaisdell Center Exhibition Hall. The awards ceremony is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. today in the Pikake Room.

A record-high number of 513 students from public and private schools competed for $250,000 in prizes ranging from scholarships and cash to expense-paid science-related trips.

But a cloud hung over the event: "As of today, we're not in the Legislature's or Department of Education budget for 2010," said Chris Trusty, Hawaii Academy of Science director.

The Legislature provided $500,000 for the state and district science fairs in the department's last two-year budget, but no money has been allocated so far this session, she said.

If there is no change, she said, the academy will have to turn to the community for support, as it did up to 1990. All money contributed now by agencies, businesses and foundations goes to awards, she said.

Gareth Wynn-Williams, a University of Hawaii astronomer and president-elect of the academy, said, "Even if we get no (state) funding, the science fair will continue in some form, even if it is greatly reduced."

Art Mori, a Chaminade University professor emeritus who has judged the science fair more than 30 years, said "it's just ridiculous" that no state funding has been budgeted for the event.

"Projects are more sophisticated every year. It's a marvelous thing to see," Mori said. "These students are all self-starters. We could give any one of them a scholarship." The fair should be supported and "should be even bigger," he said.

In January 2007, Gov. Linda Lingle told legislators that Hawaii should become a high-tech state, declaring, "Hawaii's ability to support more knowledge- and innovation-intensive economy and to raise our standard of living requires an immediate and ongoing upgrade of our skill sets for our workers."

States across the country are building their economy by supporting high-tech projects and science as the foundation, said U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, another celebrity judge and a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Act 221, which provides tax credits, helps, but more is needed, he said. "We must prepare people to be qualified," he said, adding that something should be done about funding for the science fair.

"These are our future scientists and doctors right here," said Dr. Shannon Brigman, a Kapiolani Medical Center pediatrician, a first-time judge for medicine and health projects.