History of SARSEF

SARSEF Fair and Foundation Beginnings

Our Beginning – The History of SARSEF: Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation

Read on to see how we have grown, expanding our mission so our name now stands for so much more — while still maintaining valuable ties to our past.

SARSEF began in 1955 as a regional science fair program that included 200 students from Yuma, Safford, and Nogales under the direction of Jay Treat, UA Professor of Physics.

Marvin D. “Swede’ Johnson, who would eventually rise to a vice presidency at the University of Arizona, took responsibility for the program and began hosting it at Bear Down Gym. 

Over the years responsibility for the SARSEF Fair was assumed by:

1955 and 1956 Jay Treat listed as Chairman – UA professor of Physics. SARSEF Regional Fair.

1961 Robert Nugent UA VP assisted by UA Continuing Education staff: Jim Gibson, E. Melvin Evans, and Robert Harris who was a Professor of Botany and Chief Judge.

1962 Jim Gibson listed as Director assisted by Nugent and Harris. Dr. Childs (UA College of Pharmacy)

1964 Dave Smith. Since this was sponsored by the UA and Dave was not faculty, Ed McCullough was listed officially as Director

Subsequent directors of the Fair, (before SARSEF was a Foundation) were: Dr. Ed McCullough (1965-1973), Dr. David Smith (1974-1993), Continuing Education and Gil McLaughlin (1994-1995), Dr. Jack Johnson (1996-2004), Shirley Briggs (2005-2006), Dr. Kathleen Bethel (2007 to 2014) and now by Deputy Director Liz Baker (2014 to date).

Initially, the fair was only for high school students and had no funding or awards (beyond ribbons.) Dr. McCullough instituted a paid directorship and sought outside sources for some event costs and awards.

The earliest sponsors were: Southwest Gas, The Arizona Daily Star, and Tucson Electric Power with prizes awarded from the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society as well. Costs were low, space and parking were donated, and the event became known as the University of Arizona SARSEF. Dr. Smith was named director, and paid by the university to manage the growing fair – which accounted for only a few hundred projects back then.

As SARSEF grew, so did the costs of space at the University of Arizona. SARSEF had to pay for parking, room rentals, tables for projects, and other equipment. By1995, costs were about $75,000, and covered by the office of the vice president for research, and the Colleges of Agriculture, Engineering, Science and Medicine and the College of Pharmacy.

In 1996, Tucson and the UA hosted the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Tucson was the epicenter, with thousands of students and parents — from more than 50 nations — attending.

At that point, interest in research expanded and eventually, the annual Fair outgrew just Bear Down. the facility, and so expanded to include the campus Student Union Ballrooms. However, even that space was outgrown quickly.

So in 1996 articles were filed for the formation of a non-profit that could support fundraising for the specific purpose of raising revenue to support a larger location and continued growth of the organization, in general. It was named SciEnTeK-12 Inc. at the time (for Science, Engineering, Technology in K-12 Schools) however eventually the name became confusing so it was changed to the more commonly known acronym of SARSEF.

In the year 2000, the science fair was held for the first time at the Tucson Convention Center. An additional surge in growth and interest has taken place since the Math Science and Technology Funfest (MSTFF) began holding its hands-on science exploration event during the visiting hours for SARSEF in 2003. This free “Funfest” initially brought thousands of Gr. 4-8 students to the TCC to experience a wide variety of science topics and to see all the projects participating in SARSEF. The MSTFF took place in Exhibition Hall A and the TCC ballrooms. SARSEF then grew to use Exhibition Halls A, B and C to accommodate all the booths.

In 2005, the SARSEF Fair celebrated its 50th anniversary — and hosted 1,330 projects, with over 4,100 students participating in Grades K-12. That year, more than 7,500 students visited the combined SARSEF-MSTFF event.

By 2013, over 75,000 students conducted research and participated in their school fairs in the hopes of being selected for SARSEF. Ultimately, 1,800 projects were chosen to go on to compete. Over 6,000 visitors came to the event to see the projects and celebrate their success. 
Students bringing their scientific research to the fair were awarded prizes of three types: sponsored awards donated and judged by both local and national organizations; Grand Awards for the first, second and third place projects in all grades, categories and types in the event; top awards offering further opportunities and recognition for middle- and high-school students; as well as naming the top schools and teachers in the region. The MSTFF was a two-day event that attracted more than 6,000 additional students and 800 educators and volunteers.

Top awards at that time included participation in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) for high school students, and a select few eighth graders (who serve as observers). The Broadcom MASTERS nominations are the top awards for middle school students at SARSEF. SARSEF is proud to note that its students have won numerous prizes at both the ISEF, I-SWEEEP, Broadcom MASTERS, Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge (DCYSC), American Museum of Natural History “Young Naturalists Awards”, GENIUS Olympiad and many other competitions.

Other Programs

SARSEF now has five other major programs that support its mission. Click the Programs button to find out more!

SARSEF continues to be supported by volunteers under the guidance of the SARSEF Foundation. All board members, committee members, and more than 700 event assistants and judges donate their time and experience for the benefit of the 95,000 students who vie for a spot at SARSEF each year. SARSEF students travel the world, making changes, meeting future innovators just like them!

About SARSEF, the Fair:

Created in 1955, SARSEF began as a modest event involving 200 science projects and grew into a competition for the southern half of Arizona that attracts members of the public, talented engineers and scientists, and members of the news media. Each year, it brings together educators, academic researchers, technology companies, parents, and student scientists for a five-day celebration of science and scientific discovery.

Last year, 90,000 students in Southern Arizona – from kindergarten to high school – designed research projects for their local science fairs. Only the best of those projects were selected to advance to the regional competition at the Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Fair.

SARSEF 2020 showcased 2,220 top-level research projects and awarded more than 700 prizes to winners — including over $100,000 in cash, science equipment, college scholarships or all-expense-paid trips to international student science fairs.

Over the years, science fair winners have gone on to compete at national and international science-and-engineering events, and have become expert critical thinkers, talented scholars and world-class scientists themselves. 

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Every Child. Thinking Critically. Solving Problems.