Minnesota Academy of Science Executive Director Lara Maupin recently convened an urgent meeting at the academy's office in St. Paul to deliver a dire message: A loss of funding has put its renowned Science Fair and Science Bowl programs on the chopping block.
The 150-year-old nonprofit lost a longtime sponsor that had covered a third of its Science Fair budget. Now academy officials have six months to attract new funders and close a nearly $200,000 budget gap to save the statewide programs.
"We need a STEM workforce. We need students who are looking to solve local problems," Maupin said in an interview this week. "[Funders] understand that, and so we're just trying to really get the word out to them."
The Minnesota Academy of Science (MAS) has sponsored the Science Fair since 1950 and Science Bowls since 1994. The programs offer scientifically minded young people the skills and mentorships they need to solve problems, while encouraging them to pursue careers in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.
The possible shutdown of both programs could affect thousands of students and jeopardize science fairs across the state. MAS needs at least $25,000 to keep the Science Bowls and $90,000 to continue running the Science Fair, Maupin said.
MAS officials are now working to save the programs — reaching out to foundations, companies and supporters who value a diverse pipeline of students interested in STEM careers.
"We need everyone who cares about science education in Minnesota invested in the challenge of saving these programs," she said.
The challenges facing MAS are acute. The organization has been losing longtime sponsors for a number of years, and funding from new ones hasn't been enough to fill the gap. Meanwhile, state support for MAS — which makes up less than 10% of its funding — has remained stagnant for years.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 ushered in a respite for MAS leaders, who at the time were scrambling to figure out what to do about the persistent budget gap. MAS moved the science programs online to bring down costs, using fewer staffers and doing without learning space and catered events. Pandemic relief loans enabled academy leaders to build up staff capacity and program infrastructure.
But a lot has changed since the pandemic. Program costs have soared, and colleges that have long allowed MAS to use their space for free are charging more. This year the academy dipped into its savings to return to in-person events, but that's no longer feasible.
Amid the challenges of attracting new funders for the Science Bowl and Science Fair programs, MAS leaders have watched their newest program, Fostering Opportunities and Relationships in STEM Education (FORSE), take off.
The academy started FORSE in the 2017-18 school year to offer mentoring and tutoring opportunities to underserved students and eventually help diversify the Science Bowl and Science Fair programs, whose top-performing students often hail from supportive communities and families.
There has been growing interest in recent years to fund FORSE, and membership has skyrocketed. MAS has gone from serving 20 students to 3,000 in just five years. But academy leaders worry that the same students could lose potential mentors if the Science Bowl and Science Fair programs are eliminated.
"As a state, we really need to figure out what we value, and if we really want to remain a science and technology leader," MAS board member Lori Haak said. "Because [Science Fair and Science Bowl] programs are one of the things that can continue us on that track."
Haak participated in the Science Fair in the late 1980s as a seventh-grader at Chaska Middle School. The experience, she said, shaped her career path and helped her forge lifelong friendships. She went to Concordia College in Moorhead for environmental studies and sociology, and taught high school biology.
When she received the call to join the academy's leadership and help mentor the next generation of scientists, Haak didn't have to think twice.
"This lack of funding is really hitting us hard because we're looking at having to stop offering a program that's been around for decades and really has impacted certainly my life but also many, many others as well," said Haak, who works as water resources coordinator for Eden Prairie. "We hope we can save it."