by Lou Mancinelli
Chances are, if you went to middle school or high school in the tri-state area between the mid-‘80s and now and did a science fair project, lifelong Chestnut Hill resident, Henry Disston Jr., was involved.
Each year the Delaware Valley Science Fairs (DVSF) serves as the parent organization that oversees the science fair projects of more than 1,100 students in the tri-state area. In a time when public schools —especially in the beleaguered Philadelphia School District — are known for teaching to the test, and public school education in America pales in comparison to that of many other countries, DVSF is a symbol of the potential of science that students in our schools have.
The 1100 local students come from schools across 13 regions and first participate in science fairs at their own school each year. The top three students from grades 10 through 12 in each region, from each category, go on to the final DVSF. From there, a winner is picked and entered into a national competition.
“It’s kind of a mom and pop organization,” said Disston Jr., the group’s executive director, during a recent interview.
Founded in 1949, for years DVSF was run under the collaboration of the Franklin Institute (FI) and Philadelphia Inquirer. But in the early ‘90s, when the Inquirer dropped its financial support, the fate of the fair remained in limbo.
A the time, Disston worked at FI, doing fundraising and overseeing the science fair. He knew it was something worth keeping alive. Leaning on revenue- generating chops Disston learned at FI and administrators he’d worked with on the fair, Disston incorporated DVSF as a non-profit in 1993. Two years later, it became part of Drexel University, which still oversees the fair.
According to the National Math + Science Initiative (NMSI), in 2013, only 36 percent of high school students in the U.S. were prepared for college-level science. In 2008, 31 percent of U.S. bachelor’s degrees were awarded in science and engineering fields, compared with 61 percent in Japan and 51 percent in China. To be clear, if American students want to be competitive with students abroad, they need to do better in science.
A science fair offers students a chance to execute the scientific method, conduct research, solve problems and make analyses. Last year, one of the stand-out projects was a student interested in how to identify cancer by using a urine test. Another wanted to make plane engines quieter. In Chester County, an eighth grader who won “Best Of” awards the past two years, is working in quantum entanglement.
Disston, 65, has overseen the program, for many years. The entries submitted to the DVSF are judged by 400 professionals from the area. Aside from the incredible work load of managing 1,100 science fair projects, Disston’s role includes raising money. The DVSF offers up to $3 million in rewards.
“Instead of watching TV or playing video games, they are down in the basement or laboratory,” said Disston about what he thinks makes a stand-out science student. “One thing that separates them is hard work.”
For generations, the Disston family has impacted the Philadelphia area. In the 19th century, his family started Henry Disston & Sons, which at one point was the largest manufacturer of saws in the world. Originally started at 2nd & Market in 1872, it took 25 years before the whole company moved to Tacony. Today, Disston Precision, the remaining part of the company, which was sold out of the family in the 1950s, operates near the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge.
Disston Jr.’s great great grandfather, Henry Disston, built Norwood Hall, a castle that stood on Chestnut Hill Avenue and was torn down before the First World War. Disston Jr. was raised in Chestnut Hill. He went to Jenks and graduated from Chestnut Hill Academy in 1967. Four years later, he graduated from Penn State University with a degree in psychology. Later, he got his master’s in special education.
Disston worked at Norristown State Hospital and then at Wordsworth Academy in Fort Washington. One Sunday, he saw an ad in a newspaper for a job at Franklin Institute. He applied, and stayed for 17 years until the DVSF became his full-time vocation.
For Disston, the DVSF is about learning and problem-solving. “I see what it does to the kids,” he observed. Sometimes a student discovers a passion he/she never knew they had. “When parents come up and say, ‘You don’t know what you did for my child,’” Disston sees the value of a simple science fair.
For more information visit drexel.edu/dvsf.