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?”
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.”