Wyoming teen who built fusion reactor disqualified from science fair on technicality

2013-05-31T06:00:00Z 2013-08-02T00:25:53Z Wyoming teen who built fusion reactor disqualified from science fair on technicalityBy CHRISTINE PETERSON Star-Tribune staff writer Casper Star-Tribune Online

NEWCASTLE – A Wyoming high school student who built a nuclear reactor in his dad's garage was disqualified from the International Science and Engineering Fair this month on a technicality.

His crime: competing in too many science fairs.

The infraction was reported by the former director of Wyoming State Science Fair, who later did not have her contract renewed. Officials at the University of Wyoming, the fair’s sponsor, said the director acted outside of her authority.

Conrad Farnsworth is the first person in Wyoming to build a nuclear fusion reactor. He is one of only 15 high school students in the world to successfully achieve fusion. He made it using parts he ordered online, traded with other fusioneers and created himself.

A February story in the Casper Star-Tribune launched the 18-year-old from Newcastle and his project into the national spotlight when it was highlighted on Fox News, the Huffington Post and other news outlets.

Going to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair had been Farnsworth’s goal his four years of high school. On May 14, with his board set up in Arizona and his presentation ready to go, a fair official told him he wouldn’t be competing.

“It’s frustrating having four years to get to a single point go down the drain,” Farnsworth said. “And it’s silly. It’s a science fair. Seriously, aren’t they supposed to be promoting science and not bureaucracy?”

Wrong order

The problem was too many fairs, in not the right order.

Students are only allowed to compete in one qualifying regional fair, and then another larger qualifying fair such as a state fair, said Michele Glidden, director of science and education programs for the Society for Science and the Public, the organization that runs the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

The rule is to keep students from jumping from one qualifying fair to another until he or she is finally allowed to move on, she said.

Newcastle High School students went to the Wyoming State Science Fair at the University of Wyoming, then later the South Dakota School of Mines regional fair in Rapid City. Farnsworth did not qualify at the UW fair but did in South Dakota.

None of his teachers knew the rule existed and would be a problem, said Newcastle High School science teacher Doug Scribner.

Newcastle sits only miles from the South Dakota border, and the high school has been going to both fairs for three years. It hasn’t been a problem in the past, but this was also the first time in three years a Newcastle student had qualified for the international fair.

“The South Dakota fair is close and gives our kids another opportunity to present their work,” Scribner said. “I think that was some of our motivation, and it did give our kids another chance to qualify.”

During the international fair, the then-director of the Wyoming State Science Fair, Annie Bergman, reported Farnsworth’s infraction to the authorities, Glidden said.

Neither Farnsworth nor Scribner was able to reach Bergman for several days to discuss the disqualification, Scribner said.

This was Bergman’s first year as director of the state science fair, said Kay Persichitte, dean of the College of Education for UW.

Bergman was under contract with the university to run the state science fair. When she did not have her contract renewed, she was no longer an employee, said Chad Baldwin, director of institutional communications at UW.

According to Persichitte, Bergman was no longer an employee as of May 22, after the international fair.

Calls to Bergman's office at UW were not answered, a home phone listing is no longer in service and an email was not returned.

“We did not get into the details with anyone about whether the disqualification was appropriate or inappropriate,” Persichitte said. “Dr. Bergman acted outside of her authority and without consultation from her supervisors … those actions that she took were not condoned by us.”

Paving the road

Farnsworth doesn’t know how he would have finished at the International Science and Engineering Fair. But more than an award, he wanted feedback from the judges on his project. He was still able to stand with his science board and talk with students, but only one judge had time to listen. Farnsworth hopes his experience will prevent a similar situation from happening again.

“This is a unique situation that is an adult problem that you hate to have affect a student that will be ironed out next year,” Glidden said.

The Newcastle High School science department plans to work with officials from UW, the South Dakota School of Mines and the International Science and Engineering Fair between now and next year to sort out what competitions are allowed and when, Scribner said.

Farnsworth won’t be back. He graduated this month and plans to attend the South Dakota School of Mines.

“Sometimes when you’re the trail blazer you have to make the trail easier for the next person,” said Sharla Dowding, Farnsworth’s former science teacher in Newcastle. “He has got perseverance and support.”

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at 307-746-3121 or christine.peterson@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @PetersonOutside.


Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(17) Comments

  1. chuck64
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    chuck64 - June 05, 2013 6:14 pm
    I say congrats to this student for being of such intelligence to make such an accomplishment. We should be embracing young scientist instead of penalizing them. This is why we are so far behind in science and mathmatics than many other countries. Let's help them achieve.
  2. sweetteacher123
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    sweetteacher123 - June 04, 2013 10:57 am
    I would like to add that it was not Conrad or any instructor that contacted the media. The original article about this incident was printed in Newcastle's local newspaper (The Newsletter Journal) as a news report but was accompanied by an editorial and a blog post by the editor of the paper. These submissions increased attention on several levels around the state, hence the Casper Star article.

    In addition, kudos to you, Conrad, for defending yourself with such gusto and verbal intelligence! These "adults" who have chosen to attack you (a teenager) need to learn a lesson from you.

    This is a well-written and researched article. Yes, there are two sides to every story, and both of those sides have been contacted and attempted to be represented here. Keep in mind that UW was contacted and gave its side of the story. That UW chose to not renew its employees contract was the univeristy's decision, and UW gave these details honestly.
  3. ConradFarnsworth
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    ConradFarnsworth - June 04, 2013 1:13 am

    I was aware that bringing myself into the national spotlight would bring asinine, distasteful, and ignorantly bitter commentators into the situation such as yourself. So far, I've handled the salvo of three comments fairly well...until I got to the part where you called me a liar and a cheat.

    I am well aware that this comment is water off of a duck's back especially to a liberal such as yourself, so I'll stroke your ego here for a minute to gather your attention. The fair official was not fired before the incident, you're right. I digress.

    The manner in which this situation was handled was extremely childish and immature. I am a 19 year old high school student who has more cajones, brains (common sense is not included when you purchase your PhD), and integrity than the "adult" who turned me in. By the way, before you call me the liar, there are two separate and documented instances where the "adult" claims that she did not report the infraction and that it was some other state instead. Before you call me a cheat, two of the three projects that went to ISEF this year were affiliated with UW faculty members. Before you call me a cheat, the last three years of ISEF qualifiers did not include a student from Newcastle, a school that totals 30% of the fair's population and claims more than 40% of the special and grand awards (not including honorable mentions). Before you call me a cheat, I would also like to remind you that the winner of the *INTEL* excellence in computer science award did not qualify for the *INTEL* science and engineering fair.

    When you get down to it, my project was a result of four years worth of research and development. It is my brainchild. I forged the entire unit with my bare hands and steel. I learned a little bit about vacuum technology, electronics, radiation, nuclear reactors, welding, and particle physics in the process. I earned a name for myself, and this project shaped me to be the person I am today.

    Of course I was disappointed when I was informed that those years I had invested into a project had suddenly disintegrated, but I accepted it. It was the way that the fair director had handled the matter, refused to communicate, lied, refused to take responsibility for reporting the infraction, and then (the icing on the cake) recommend that I attend counseling in her first ever attempt at communication with my constituents. This was absolutely childish and (excuse the cliche) yellow-bellied. Although, to be fair, it did take some coaxing on my part in the form of a confrontation that included several unprofessional words that were said in order to get the director to contact us...24 hours later.

    This article (like the many others) is written with a bias towards myself, the contestant. Why? Because this article has an archetype. A life lesson if you will. We're allowing bureaucracy to stand in the way of scientific achievements. I am sick of being pushed around by these blackballing, bureaucratic, knuckledraggers. It has been happening for the past three years I have been in competition with my device and I am finally glad that this nonsense has been exposed. The very fact that I am wasting my sleep typing this comment adds to how silly this is. It's a science fair.

    If you stopped reading when I started firing back at your little "liar and cheat" remarks, here's the condensed version: I was disqualified for an unknown infraction. The rules are the rules and I accepted that. What I absolutely refused to accept was the blackballing BS that I had been dealing with in the state of Wyoming that had been drug onto the international floor.

    Quite frankly, I wouldn't save you from a fire for risk of being sued.

  4. Molmay
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    Molmay - June 03, 2013 11:06 am
    The death of truth,
    You must not be from Wyoming since you have no idea how things are here. Newcastle is in the far northeast corner of the state. He went to the Wyoming state fair because he lives in Wyoming. And he went to the South Dakota state fair because that fair is just minutes away. Farnsworth didn't cheat. Newcastle is a little town and having a high schooler from a small town get to the international science fair is a big deal. Do you really think that high school science teachers from a small town in Wyoming intentionally broke the rules for a competition that they weren't even familiar with? No! It's the state science fair representative, who was the disgruntled employee, who had the responsibility to know what the rules are. The employee knew that her contract wasn't being renewed so she had nothing to lose..

    Farnsworth did not cheat. And for you to say that about an 18 year old who has an incredibly bright future ahead of him is insulting. Go read the other articles about him. We have all been following him and his project for months. Seriously, you must be a special kind of stupid to blame an 18 year old for the actions of a disgruntled employee.
  5. the death of truth and ethics
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    the death of truth and ethics - June 03, 2013 10:07 am
    Molmay, just in case you cannot see through this story as originally reported -- if the state director was fired before this rule-breaking was reported as you say, how could she have been working the international event in the first place??? The rules are clear, this kid and his teacher tried to circumvent them and then they used the media to make it look as though they were victimized. By the looks of most comments that have been posted, the ploy worked and the kid has considerable sympathy. While he and his teacher may be winning this media battle, the sad part here is that they may be missing the much more important point that there is absolutely no place in science for people who misrepresent the truth in any way.
  6. the death of truth and ethics
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    the death of truth and ethics - June 03, 2013 9:25 am
    Molmay, you are absolutely wrong if you believe these rules were somehow "sneaky" and change from year to year. They are clearly stated, have been so for years, and are put in place to prevent contestants from gaining unfair advantage by entering in multiple states in hoping they might find a set of judges somewhere who will advance their project to the next level. The kid (and his teacher) CLEARLY cheated, and then lied to the reporter who wrote this story (that, or the reporter misrepresented) when they said they did not know these rules. That (that they did not know the rules) is the part that is truly unbelievable about this whole story, which unfortunately paints this chain of events to make this kid out to be some sort of victem. And you actually believe the state director was fired BEFORE this incident? Common now, you must be smarter than that!
  7. jimlux
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    jimlux - June 01, 2013 6:46 pm
    I saw Conrad's project at ISEF. It was well done, but as noted, was not in competition. There were about a half dozen such projects (out of a thousand) that had been ruled ineligible, and the judges are told that it is not because of something the student had done, but because of something else that had gone wrong (in this case, the two fair problem, I guess). All the more unfortunate because Conrad was building a device pioneered by Philo Farnsworth, often known as a Farnsworth Fusor (although he said he isn't related).

    As far as judges not being able to talk to him: judging day is very busy for the judges. You have 14-15 projects to judge, on a strict schedule, every 15 minutes, and while you might get a break between projects, you need that to make your notes and fill out score cards. There really isn't a lot of time to spare. There were about 100 judges judging over 100 projects in his category (Engineering, Electrical and Mechanical), so it's a busy, busy day. (We didn't finish til after 9PM)

    As pointed out by other commenters, the rules for ISEF are published (years in advance.. they don't change much from year to year). It's the rules of the game, and you need to know them if you're competing. Conrad is lucky that he had a choice of fairs. Some students have no fair that they can compete in which is affiliated with ISEF and can send projects. And sometimes the rules are different for different fairs (there are projects at ISEF that could not legally compete in California because of the antivivisection laws). But them's the breaks, in science fair, as in any other competitive endeavor.
  8. Molmay
    Report Abuse
    Molmay - June 01, 2013 6:29 pm
    The death of truth-
    I don't think that you actually read the article then for you to have such a stupid response. He went to the UW science fair because he's a resident of Wyoming and also the SD science fair because its literally 5 minutes away from Newcastle. The employee at UW who is in charge of the state science fairs, and is the one who should know these rules for the international fair, had not had her contract renewed with the school, so she had been laid off. Being a disgruntled former employee, she found a rule that no one really pays attention to and no one really knows about, and threw the kid under the bus. It was not the science teachers at Newcastle High's responsibility to know these sneaky rules, but instead this woman, who used her knowledge in a harmful way. But congratulations to Farnsworth on his accomplishments in science! You are going to do great things! It's unfortunate that this woman felt the need to do this to an 18 year old kid. Shame, shame, shame on her!
  9. apraetor
    Report Abuse
    apraetor - June 01, 2013 12:09 pm
    No, he built a real fusion reactor. They're not THAT difficult. The task that's currently impossible is building a fusion reactor which has a greater net energy output than the input required for the fusion.

    Everything in this story sounds plausible.. except the part where the student's name is Farnsworth. Check out Philo Farnsworth on wikipedia.

  10. the death of truth and ethics
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    the death of truth and ethics - June 01, 2013 12:05 pm
    I just caught this on AP and decided to check out the source. Something does not make sense in the way this story was crafted by the author. There are rules of engagement in EVERY competition (sports, spelling bees, etc) and how then can this kid (or worse, the kid's teacher), who claims to have been preparing for this event for years not know them??? The facts (not the writer's spin, but the facts) appear to be that this kid tried in one fair and failed to advance, so he then jumped into another state's fair to get around this first failure. This is cheating, plain and simple. What is this lesson teaching him about ethics and morality here? We should all be ashamed. The loss of ethics and honesty here is especially critical, in fact, of paramount importance, when we are talking about science teachers and future scientists, since we have to trust their honesty above all else. If they cheat, everyone loses. It is a shame, then, that the administrators at UW rushed to decide to throw the state director, their subordinate, under the bus, saying her actions were not condoned by them and she acted outside her authority. It is THEIR heads that should roll, not the state director's who was only doing what they were paid to do. If you don't believe me, think about this -- what if this kid ended up winning and the international science fair officials found out later that he was ineligible because of the rules of the International Science Fair Association, and it was later learned that the state director knew he was ineligible but kept her mouth shut. Do you think the UW administrators would not still fire her? Certainly they would. The actions of the UW administrators plainly reveal that they are doing everything they can to protect their own jobs and keep the public's eye off them. Truth, ethics, and morality are the true victems here, not this kid who regrettably cheated. His teacher should be fired as well.
  11. stairmaster60m
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    stairmaster60m - June 01, 2013 11:58 am
    fact check ! "Fusion Reactor" ? -- If he really built a _fusion_ reactor he should be getting the Nobel Prize. Most likely he built a Fission reactor which is nevertheless quite impressive!
  12. billy
    Report Abuse
    billy - June 01, 2013 8:39 am
    This is becoming all to typical of the people in charge (our leaders) the people that are paid to know what is going on and given the power they don't deserve and look at the damage they do with it and they are not held accountable. Shame on all of ya, you know who you are. Leaders, ya right!
  13. Tarantino
    Report Abuse
    Tarantino - June 01, 2013 7:23 am
    That is stupendous. We need to have more and more teens building fusion reactors for science fair. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUrt186pWoA
  14. GideonCain
    Report Abuse
    GideonCain - June 01, 2013 7:09 am
    Bloody shame, this is the sort of young man who has the potential to literally change the world. Newcastle and Wyoming should be proud of him
  15. Jello Beyonce
    Report Abuse
    Jello Beyonce - May 31, 2013 2:58 pm
    The "power structure" in Wyoming again doing whatever it can to drive intelligence out of the state.
    This message brought to you and approved by BrainDrain Dave.
  16. perfo
    Report Abuse
    perfo - May 31, 2013 11:38 am
    Well..at least all the kids with plaster of paris volcanoes have a shot now.
  17. Cody Coyote
    Report Abuse
    Cody Coyote - May 31, 2013 7:48 am
    Well, now he knows how Galileo must have felt when the Catholic Church got on his case for daring to defy the dogma...
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