- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2017

America’s scientific future may belong to a group of smiling middle-schoolers.

The nonprofit Chemical Educational Foundation on Monday brought together some of the nation’s brightest youngsters for its “You Be the Chemist National Challenge” at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.

The tournament allowed 42 fifth- to eighth-graders to showcase their scientific knowledge in a format similar to that of a spelling bee.

“They aren’t asked what words to spell,” said Kurt Hettinga, board member of the event and president of Superior Oil Co. “Instead they’re asked extremely difficult chemistry questions.”

The grand prize was certainly worth vying for.

“The champion receives a $12,000 educational scholarship,” said Emily Belson, senior manager of the foundation, which is based in Alexandria, Virginia. “In fact, the three runners-up receive scholarships as well.”

These are well-tested competitors, too. By the time they reach the national competition, the students already have competed and won local and state-level matches.

Mr. Hettinga noted that this is the first time the 13-year-old competition has been held outside of Philadelphia.

“It’s an opportunity to take it to another town, and to expose the foundation to people on the Hill,” he said, emphasizing the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education for the nation’s future.

With stakes so high, a little nervousness in the young competitors would be expected.

But as the students waited before taking the stage, they displayed no agitation. The 42 middle-schoolers seemed excited to show off what they know about the subject they love.

Kai Svenson, an eighth-grader from Kensington, Maryland, attributed his confidence to the time he had devoted to learning via an online platform that STEM educators encourage children to use.

“I’ve been doing a lot of studying by watching a lot of YouTube videos,” Kai said. “I try to answer any doubt I have or anything I think could be answered in a better way. I watch a lot of crash-course videos, and those have really helped me.”

Dwayne Stattler, executive director of the Chemical Educational Foundation, said STEM innovation in elementary and middle school is vital to the health of the economy.

“From a research perspective, if we are able to connect with elementary and middle-school students and get them interested in science, they are much more likely to continue in it. But middle school is where we lose people,” Mr. Stattler said.

According to a report from the National Science Foundation, elementary students spend more time reading than doing math and science combined. And only 16 percent of high school graduates even consider a STEM major in college.

The U.S. job market will likely see the effects of those choices. The National Bureau of Economic Research says that STEM-centered jobs will grow by 17 percent by next year, and experts estimate that 1.2 million of those jobs will not be filled. By comparison, the growth rate for non-STEM jobs is around 8 percent.

The Chemical Educational Foundation seeks to expand the growth of STEM in schools.

“Just a few short years ago, we had about seven states [participating in the competition], and we were only impacting about 70,000 kids total through all of our programs,” said Mr. Stattler. “This year, we impacted 955,000 students.”

These programs depend on volunteers who see the need for STEM since the foundation itself has a staff of nine people, he said.

“They give their time because they care about young kids, science and the future,” Mr. Stattler said. “As we look at what we want to do in terms of an eventual workforce that has the expertise to get a job that actually exists, this is simply the area.”

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