Science fair mentor combines love of learning, kidsCindy Welsh teaches science in Cloquet and mentors science fair students as well as organizing the regional science fair with her husband, Scott. Many of Cindy's students have had outstanding results at regional and national competitions -- which makes a person think Welsh is pretty good at her job.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
If you want to judge what kind of science fair mentor Cloquet’s Cindy Welsh is, just look at where her former students have gone.
Jill Beaufeaux is in pharmacy school. Kristi Hakala is a geologist in Colorado. Logan Pallin is a freshman at Duke University on a scholarship. His classmate Ben Scheuer is going to Yale. Raymond Saeland has a degree in aerospace engineering and was just accepted into pilot school at the Air Force Academy.
Perhaps her most competitive science fair protégée to date, daughter Elizabeth (or Betsy), is currently in graduate school at UMD studying chemical limnology (the study of lakes) at the Large Lake Observatory where she will start work on her Ph.D. next year.
But Welsh is in the science-fair game for love, not fame and certainly not money.
“Why do I do it?” she said. “I love kids, I don’t think I could do a job if there weren’t kids involved. And I love science and I love learning. So I get to be with kids and learn at the same time.”
The Cloquet science teacher took the long route to teaching and mentoring science fair students.
First she was a medical technician. After getting married and having three kids, she became a stay-at-home mom for 12 years. While staying at home with the kids, she took college classes for enjoyment and “to get out of the house.”
After 12 years, Welsh completed her Bachelor’s degree in geology and life science with a teaching certificate to boot.
From the beginning, kids were part and parcel of her learning.
“I took stream ecology/ limnology, a lot of graduate level biology classes,” Welsh said. “We’d have to do research projects, so I’d take my kids and we’d do stream sampling.”
She didn’t know it then, but even as a stay-at-home mom Welsh was building the skills that make her such an exceptional science teacher and science fair mentor that she’s been nationally recognized.
“I think of myself at home with my kids, when they’d be playing, I’d set the stage and say. ‘Now go play.’ I sort of feel like that’s what I do here, I facilitate it happening,” she said.
Betsy, the youngest of Welsh’s three children, went on to do her own project on using barley to control green algal growth and won numerous national awards for her work.
“It’s kind of funny, because Betsy did her project on lakes, and after she graduated she said, ‘I don’t want to do any research anymore,’ and she went to St. Scholastica to be a physical therapist,” Welsh said. “Then she started missing it and changed her mind.”
Now, it seems, the younger Welsh can’t get enough of science.
Like mother, like daughter.
After Welsh got her degree, she got a job teaching science at Holy Rosary Middle School in Duluth. (Welsh said she learned everything about science fairs there from librarian Kathy Manteuffel.)
“Then I went about two years and, I don’t know, I had this thing,” Welsh said. “I just really need to learn new things so I went for my master’s [degree]. Then I went about two years and then I went back and got my
She’s not going back for a second doctorate degree, at least not yet.
“Really, helping kids with projects fills that need for me,” Welsh said. “I’m always getting to learn something new.”
For example, before young Courtney Jackson came along, Welsh didn’t know anything about mapping the circular lows on the planet Venus.
Jackson is the Cloquet senior who got to meet President Obama last fall, a direct result of her own exceptional science fair projects. Welsh, who teaches earth and life sciences at Cloquet Middle School along with two sections of science research at the high school, has been working with Jackson since she was a seventh-grader.
“I remember, at the beginning of that year, Mrs. Welsh showed us a slide show of her daughter Betsy. She had all these amazing accomplishments from science fair,” Courtney said, explaining that she’d never been very interested in science until then. “I thought, ‘I’d like to try it, see what I might be interested in.’ ”
“I remember my husband saying to you, in seventh grade, that ‘You’re gonna be the next Betsy!’” said Welsh, laughing.
Jackson has made a pretty good run at it.
For the past four years, the Cloquet High School senior has been working with a UMD planetary geologist, studying circular features – called circular lows – found all over Venus. She explained that the planetary geologist community is split on how these features are formed.
This year, with the help of fellow science fair students Billy Bauer and Christian Wood, Jackson wrote a computer program to assist with her project.
“These are other students she could be competing against, but we all try to help each other,” Welsh said.
“Before that, well, I’m completely ignorant when it comes to, like, computers,” Jackson said.
“Well, that kind of stuff, most people are,” she said.
Although Welsh’s two older children – Mark and Katie – missed the science fair train, her husband, Scott, jumped on board when Betsy was competing and he’s been there ever since. Welsh said Scott makes many of the wooden three-part boards that students use for their displays, and travels with them when he can get away from work. He and Cindy basically co-direct the regional science fair, as well.
“If he wants to see me then he has to come help,” Welsh said, acknowledging the hundreds of hours – more than 900 a year – outside of school she puts in with her science fair students.
Those are basically volunteer hours, by the way. Welsh doesn’t get any kind of stipend like a coach would, just her salary as a teacher. The school does help pay for meals when they travel, and the Cloquet Educational Foundation gives her at least two grants per year. Other grants help cover travel to far away national and international competitions.
She’s not asking for a raise. More than money, Welsh would like time.
“I don’t know if an advisor’s stipend would really even touch it,” she said, musing over the question of compensation. “What I’d like to have is an hour where I could come here to the high school and do a little out-of-the-box kind of teaching assignment, maybe available in the afternoon twice a week when they’re free, to mentor them. It would be nice to have time for more one-on-one at the middle school, too, so maybe I wasn’t working so much after school.
“But with budget cuts, I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”
Although Welsh spends hundreds of hours with her students, she’s also a very proud wife and mother.
She gets a certain glow when she talks about her son Mark, his wife, Hillarie, and their daughter, Natalie, age 1. The same goes for her middle daughter, Katie, who has a four-month-old baby, Gabriel, with husband J.R.
Welsh is a proud grandma.
And a busy one. In May, Welsh and her science fair stars are headed to Los Angeles for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, followed by a trip to the International Environmental Genius Olympiad in New York in June.
Welsh, herself, received the Siemens Founders Award in 2010. The award is given to five high school teachers who have encouraged students to participate in math, science or technology. As part of the award, Welsh will get to participate in a hands-on summer research immersion program at Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee.
Normally, summers are her slow time of year.
“I like to take a break, although I do work with some kids who can’t do their research any other time of year,” Welsh said. “But I like to fish and spend time with the grandkids. So I didn’t know if I wanted to go, but it would be silly not to.”
Speaking of honors, add one more student to the list of science fair students from Cloquet who go places.
On Wednesday Jackson found out she got a four-year fellowship to her dream school, Penn State.