Students present their projects to judges at the 2020 Pikes Peak Regional Science and Engineering Fair, the last year the event was held in person. The event returns to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs on Saturday following two years of virtual fairs.

It all starts with a question.

What is this? How does this work? What would happen if I put this here?

“Sometimes it’s not very smart to put a screwdriver in an electrical outlet, but kids try it anyway,” said Pikes Peak Regional Science and Engineering Fair co-director Carol Bach. “All children are natural investigators. We start off as babies learning to crawl. You’re an investigator in the world around you.”

Middle and high school students from several counties will converge at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs on Saturday for the 66th annual PPRSEF, where they will explore their curiosities via science projects — a far cry from screwdrivers in outlets, to be sure — for a chance at cash and special prizes. Community members are welcome to view the projects for themselves from 3 to 4 p.m. in Berger Hall.

Roughly 50 projects will be on display, according to PPRSEF co-director Nancy Hampson, a drastic change from the days of 250-plus entries in the regional event open to all Elbert, El Paso, Park and Teller county students.

But those dedicated students who continue to show up, she said, arrive with “really strong” entries.

Students compete individually or in teams of up to three, and there is no pre-requisite to enter, although the deadline for this year’s competition passed in January.

This year’s fair is split into two divisions: junior, consisting of sixth through eighth graders, and senior, consisting of ninth through 12th graders. After eight rounds of judging, junior-level students compete for one of four category awards, and seniors compete for the top spot in just two categories.

“We’re not (an) ‘everybody gets first place because you were the only one in your category’ fair,” Hampson said.

The senior division grand prize is $1,000, though students have plenty of other opportunities to walk away with special awards presented by more than three dozen local and national organizations, including National Geographic and the U.S. Air Force. Special awards can be anything from money to certificates to miscellaneous “goodies,” Bach said.

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Students also benefit from soft skill development, like communication.

“You have interviews for all sorts of things, and if you can explain to this grumpy old guy in front of you why you did this and what you learned,” Hampson said, “it helps with their confidence and being able to defend themselves and explain themselves” (For her part, Bach, who trains the roughly 60 judges, said she encourages them “not to be grumpy old guys and gals.”)

Especially bright young students might even be eligible for additional competitions and awards.

Each year a batch of roughly 20 students are selected to compete in the statewide Colorado Science and Engineering Fair held in Fort Collins in April. Additionally, three senior division projects will be selected to compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair, which this year will be in Dallas.

“So really the regional science fair is a steppingstone,” Bach said.

The event isn’t for everybody, Hampson notes, though neither is wrestling. Those with a natural curiosity and a self-motivated spirit should consider entering in next year’s fair, she said, because that’s where they just might find their people. The social component has been noticeably absent after COVID forced the fair online in 2021 and 2022.

One particular student, who went to four international competitions, comes to Hampson’s mind as she reflected on the event's propensity for bringing people together. The student's first science fair came with a revelation: “These are my people,” she remembers the student saying to her. “This is where I fit.”

“If you were the science geek at your school and you don’t feel like you fit, when you go to science fair, you find out that yes, there are a lot of people just like you. They maybe just don’t go to your school,” Hampson said.

“It’s amazing how they blossom socially when they find their group,” Bach added. “They come out of their shells, and they can talk about their rocks, and the other one can talk about his rockets, and they can have more fun, and they get into it. They become lifelong friends because of it.”

Regional award winners will be announced 6 p.m. Wednesday at Library 21C in North Colorado Springs.

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