Having been a Cloquet High School freshman in Dr. Cynthia Welsh’s Introductory to Physical Science class 13 years ago, I can attest that what Duke University is to college men’s basketball, the Cloquet School District is to the science fair.
For more than a decade, Welsh and her Cloquet science program students have competed with the best in the region, state and even nationally, much like the collegiate Blue Devils at their prestigious private school in Durham, N.C.
In fact, it’s been through science fair that former Cloquet graduates, siblings Logan and Kendra Pallin, are now students at Duke, and continuing to advance into higher education.
Perhaps comparable to the dominant Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the 55-year-old Welsh has been her own masterful mentor within the science education field for years.
A teacher for 20 years, Welsh’s third-floor Cloquet Middle School science room is like a students’ trophy case, decorated with newspaper clippings, former projects and many students’ thank-you cards — as well as Facebook posts and messages received — admiring her long hours of help.
Welsh said Tuesday that she’s received help from the Cloquet School District in allowing her additional free time to work with students at both the high school and middle school each day; however, she explained her usual day from November until the springtime can still last up to 13 hours.
But like Krzyzewski coaching practice or watching film, Dr. Welsh has done the same, coaching a plethora of science students to countless awards and watching many succeed.
Welsh, who learned and began her science fair career in 1995 at Holy Rosary Catholic School in Duluth before then going to Lincoln Park and finally Cloquet, said a record 44 Cloquet High School and Middle School students competed at last week’s state science fair meet in the Twin Cities, with a most-ever 26 students claiming 21 grand and special awards.
“We’re right in there with the top schools,” said Welsh, rattling off metro science fair powers Breck School, Wayzata and Burnsville. “It’s taken gradual success.”
Success for Welsh and her students, like the pair at Duke, has almost become expected for Cloquet throughout time. Starting with one international competitor in 2001, this year the Lumberjacks landed 60 participants at the regional competition — which Welsh also directs — while eight of the nine regional qualifiers for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, Calif., are from Cloquet.
With Cloquet representing nearly 90 percent of the region at international competition — which Welsh said includes around 60 countries — that’s like Duke winning the Atlantic Coast Conference championship so dominantly they secured eight NCAA tournament bids. That’s not even possible.
But that’s what Welsh and the Cloquet science program do. They allow for the impossible to be possible, year after year.
Cloquet Middle School eighth-grader Franny Slater is an example. The 14-year-old’s project, which predicted the offspring of zebrafish, finished in the top 5 percent at state. Earning a grand award, among others, Slater was the first eighth-grader to do so since Bethany Rosemore in 2006.
Slater, who worked tirelessly with Adrianna Pollack — a Cloquet senior who also focused on zebrafish — was surprised when her name was announced for her gold medal.
“I saw the bronze medal winners walk by me and I didn’t think I would get anything,” Slater said. “It was pretty cool.”
To me, though, one of the coolest things Dr. Welsh and Cloquet have done through science is send students to college ... including the Pallins at Duke. Rosemore is at the University of New York, while fellow Cloquet graduates Courtney Jackson, William Bauer and Ben Scheuer each attend Penn State, Stanford and Yale, respectively, because of science dominance.
Slater said she may consider Duke, if an opportunity arises.
“All the science trips are the carrot,” Welsh said in her classroom, “but the whole goal with all of this is for students to get a scholarship, and in the end, be successful in college.”
Well put from the woman leading their science dynasty.
* Dr. Welsh holds a doctorate degree in Educational Policy and Administration.