SARSEF began in 1955 as a regional science fair to meet the critical shortage of scientists and engineers by encouraging more high school students to aim towards those fields. The first fair included 120 projects from Tucson, Casa Grande, Yuma, and Bisbee and was planned by the University of Arizona and hosted at the Bear Down gymnasium. Two high school students were selected to compete at the National Science fair in Cleveland, Ohio.
From the beginning, students were working on projects they cared about. In 1961, Sondra Kay Johnson, a senior at Rincon High School, suffered from severe allergies. In her project, she devised her own method for collecting pollen and identified 75 different types of pollen from three different sites over a year’s time. Sondra was one of the students selected to attend the National Science fair.
In the 70s, most SARSEF Fairs included 400 participants. By the 80s, that number was up to 1,000.
In 1996, Tucson and the University of Arizona 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.
Marcy Paquin was one of the students selected to attend ISEF at the SARSEF Fair. She looked at rat hearts, one normal and one diseased. She treated the heart cells with a stain that sticks to proteins called integrins, which allow heart cells to adhere to other heart cells. She found a higher concentration and an abnormal distribution of the integrins in the diseased heart, which could have implications in diagnosing heart failure.
Meanwhile, the SARSEF Fair was growing rapidly. 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. (for Science, Engineering, Technology in K-12 Schools) and later changed to SARSEF.
By 1997, the fair had grown to showcase the work of 2,225 K-12 grade students. In the same year, SARSEF’s previous CEO, Liz Bowman, won Best Individual In Primary Grade for her project, “What Kind of Soil and Climate Do Insects Prefer?”
In the year 2000, the science fair was held for the first time at the Tucson Convention Center. The fair would continue to be held at the center to accommodate the growing size of the event.
In 2003, SARSEF held its first hands-on science exploration event as a new feature of the fair. Thousands of 4th – 8th grade students attended to experience a wide variety of science topics and to see all the projects participating in the Fair.
A young girl in the audience of the SARSEF Fair awards ceremony turned to her mom and asked why all the winners were boys. A SARSEF board member overheard and brought their concerns back to the entire board. This interaction convinced the board to hire SARSEF’s first paid employees to ensure the organization’s work was built on equity.
SARSEF hired its first CEO – Kathleen Bethel in 2009. During her 10 years with the organization, SARSEF grew to include other science events, such as the Arizona STEM Adventure, high school mentoring programs, and outreach programs.
While the fair continued to be a major event for SARSEF, the focus had shifted to creating Arizona’s future critical thinkers and problem solvers through science and engineering with a variety of programming for students, parents, and teachers.
By 2020, SARSEF had acquired a solar-powered go-kart competition for high school students and built year-round programming to engage a diversity of students in science and engineering.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first made its presence known throughout Arizona in early March, SARSEF was challenged to completely transition their Science and Engineering Fair to a hybrid event to showcase the work of over 7,000 students. For the remainder of the year, SARSEF ran programs virtually to bring science to students learning at home. As a result, SARSEF’s new outreach program, What Do We Wonder? started, which led students and teachers through the entire research process.