Science Fair director feels strong affinity for event

3/24/2009 - By: John Trent

George Ochs really can’t help it, or contain it, for that matter. His love of science and his love of learning come forward in practically every conversation he has, with any person, at any time.

He has been personally involved with the Western Nevada Regional Science and Engineering Fair for more than 30 years; as his children came up through the ranks as participants while students at Hunter Lake Elementary, Swope Middle and Reno High Schools in the early to mid-1980s; as assistant director of the fair in 1995; then as co-director beginning in 2000; and, from 2002 to the present, as director.

And really, his association with the event dates back even further, to the beginning of an award-winning teaching career as a chemistry teacher at Reno High School in 1973. That was the first year he ever served as a judge for the event, which makes its annual appearance on the University Nevada, Reno campus this weekend, March 26-28, at Lawlor Events Center. The fair is open for public viewing on Friday, March 27 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on Saturday, March 28, from 9 a.m. to noon.

“My wife asks me that question all the time,” Ochs said, when asked why chooses to stay involved with one of the most successful science fairs in the country. “I stay involved because there’s a need. Some of my friends have said, ‘If you don’t do it, who’s going to do it?’

“I’m passionate about science, and it’s something I really enjoy doing.”

There are few more qualified than Ochs, whose career in science – spanning a teaching and administration career in the Washoe County School District of more than 30 years – has been marked by remarkable longevity, a great deal of good humor and numerous prestigious honors.

In addition to his duties as director of the Western Nevada Regional Science and Engineering Fair, held each March at Lawlor, Ochs is a past advisory board member of the International Science and Engineering Fair – the only Nevada teacher to ever be selected for one of the science education’s most important worldwide posts.

In 1990, while still teaching chemistry at Reno High School, Ochs earned the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching in Secondary Science for the State of Nevada. The Presidential Award for Excellence is the highest recognition that a K-12 science or mathematics teacher can receive.

If that isn’t enough, recall, too, that Ochs for several years at Reno High School was one of the top wrestling coaches in the West, producing numerous individual state champions and creating what has become the largest and most successful wrestling tournament of its kind – the Sierra Nevada Wrestling Classic, a veritable three-ring wrestling circus which debuted in 1976 and has drawn teams and competitors from throughout the country.

“I’ve done quite a few events,” Ochs said, with a laugh. “I tend to do quite a few big events.”

And to think that the incredibly organized Ochs, whose mind has a periodic table of the elements orderliness to it, ended up in Reno as a young more by chance than any grand plan. If not for a football injury during his senior year of high school in Klamath Falls, Ore., Ochs might’ve ended up with a scholarship from Oregon State or Willamette. Instead, the University of Nevada offered the injured Ochs a scholarship to play football and wrestle.

Ochs became the first member of his family to graduate from college when he received his degree from Nevada in 1972. He began teaching at Reno High School the following year.

As a teacher, Ochs very early on realized the value of experiential learning. He took on student lab assistants at Reno High without really worrying about the total number. “I had six, 10, 12 kids who were lab assistants, and they would have a specific requirement to help with the lab, but also to do independent research,” Ochs remembered. “It was always very important to me to be a teacher who was willing to push my students forward and have them involved in things that would benefit them down the line.”

Ochs recalled a student named Thomas DeMartini, a bright young man, “a super nice kid who got involved in science. I remember asking Tom, ‘What are you really interested in?’ He wanted to do more research. So we got him hooked up with someone at the University and he became a student lab assistant. Lo and behold, he started to do real research.”

Ochs paused for a moment, his bright eyes shimmering from the memory.

“Sometimes,” he added, “all it takes is somebody to give them the encouragement.”

A direct beneficiary of participation in the science fair was one of Ochs’ final students. In the summer of 1996, after teaching at Reno High School for a quarter of a century, Ochs was named the Washoe County School District’s science coordinator.

“It was a new challenge, but I really missed the classroom tons,” Ochs said. But thanks to a former student, Andrew Gardner, Ochs was able to stay connected to the classroom and the science fair that he loved so much. Gardner was in Ochs’ final chemistry class as a sophomore in 1995-96, and that year Ochs took Gardner as an observer to the International Science Fair in Kentucky.

The experience lit a competitive fire in Gardner, who already was an uncommonly gifted science student. Gardner went on to place third in the world at the International Science Fair at Fort Worth, Texas, as a junior and second in the world when the event was held in Philadelphia in 1999 as a senior. Gardner also was named an Intel Scholar for the impact his science fair project had had on his community – one of only six students from throughout the world so honored.

“Even now,” Ochs said, clearly relishing the “Eureka!” aspect of the memory, “Andrew likes to say that he ‘stepped into his project.’ Andrew was walking around Virginia Lake, and you know how much goose you-know-what is on the ground. He literally stepped into his project. It made him think that there might be a larger question to be answered. So he began to do a lot of water quality work on the lake, and his research led to a mathematical, computerized modeling program on water quality that (was a forerunner to what the) City of Reno is using today. Andrew even was asked by the Egyptian government to serve as a consultant for them.”

It is moments like these – and hundreds of others like them over the past 36 years – that clearly energize Ochs.

He is justifiably proud of the Western Nevada Regional Science and Engineering’s Fair’s growth over the years, and in his typical, “aw-shucks,” self-effacing manner, is quick to give praise to all of the participants, volunteers and organizers who have come before him.

The event traces its roots back to 1964, when it was under the direction of Ken Johns of the College of Education at the University of Nevada. Under Johns and then John Trent, another College of Education professor, the fair grew from about 100 to 200 participants to nearly 600 by the time the reins were turned over to Tom Lugaski, administrator of the Mackay School of Mines and Engineering’s Keck Museum, in the late 1980s. By this time, Ochs, through the participation of his own children, had become a fixture in the fair, either as a volunteer, organizer or judge.

“Even when my kids were involved, I remember thinking, ‘Where are all the high school kids?’” Ochs said, remembering a common challenge for science fairs – strong participation by younger students, then a smaller talent pool once youngsters hit high school. “During Tom’s time I got involved with the high school division. I had been taking kids to the International Science Fair and wanted to help increase the high school participation.”

During Lugaski’s directorship, participation grew even more, to more than 1,000 participants by the time the well-liked and well-respected campus fixture died unexpectedly in 2000.

Ochs, along with Dr. Julie Ellsworth, took over as director of the fair following Lugaski’s death, with Ochs assuming the position by himself in 2002.

Today, the event has reached a highly successful level of close to 1,500 projects, which each March pushes Lawlor’s capacity to its limit – a good problem to have, Ochs says.

“It’s so much easier today, than the way we used to do it,” Ochs said, noting the science fair features an online registration system. In the “old days,” Ochs remembered the science fair’s previous version of computerized entry: Jeanne Page, the wife of former University Vice President for Advancement Paul Page and one of the science fair’s all-time great volunteers – “Just a wonderful woman,” Ochs remembered – would sort through paper entries, order them, and place them in tidy groups in Velveeta boxes. “People would line up for hours to register,” Ochs said, smiling.

Today’s science fair features two awards ceremonies for both inventions and the science fair. The floor will hold about 1,000 projects, the Silver & Blue Room will hold another 300-400 projects and if needed, the President’s Room can accommodate another 100 more.

The event has obviously come a long way. Yet the one constant, the one personality it has developed over the years, belongs to a witty, extremely intelligent man whose capacity of spirit for all learning is far beyond the norm.

And to think that when Ochs was looking for a college major to graduate in at the University back in the early 1970s, he almost didn’t choose education and a career in teaching.

Looking to graduate in January 1972, Ochs, who was double-majoring in chemistry and mathematics, moved to education less because it was his passion than because it afforded him a quicker route to graduation.

To paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, that expedient decision has made all of the difference not only for Ochs, but for literally thousands of young science students who have competed or will compete in one of their education career’s most important rites of passage – the Western Nevada Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

“It’s been an amazing experience over the years,” Ochs said. “We owe a great debt to all of the people who have been involved over the years. It really has made it special.”


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