ALPENA, Ark. – A small school in the Ozarks has a growing problem and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
Alpena High School, located in Boone County, Arkansas, has won so many science fair awards it can’t fit them all into a trophy case.
“There’s over 1400 of these [awards] in this hallway,” says science teacher, Mark Welch, while taking KOLR10 on a tour of awards that stretch around the corner of one of the hallways.
“This hallway, it’s our backbone. I mean there’s no other way to put it,” says Alpena senior, Brandon Criner,
The 1-A School has been upsetting schools five- to ten-times its size for more than a decade.
The numerous titles recently caught the eye of University of Arkansas journalism professor, Dale Carpenter. Carpenter made a documentary about the science fair community in Arkansas; the featured school was Alpena.
“When I started talking to other people who knew about science fair, everybody mentioned Alpena,” Carpenter says.
The accumulation of state titles and regional champions — Northwest Arkansas is the most competitive region in the state – began when Welch came to the school 18-years ago.
“I treated it somewhat like a sports team in the way we would go about motivating the children,” he says, “and the way we would go about rewarding the children. Just like the plaques in a trophy case.”
Welch says the unique outlet provides hope for students in other areas than sports and makes it clear they can compete against anyone despite the odds.
The mentality has helped push some students to the top level of competition: the International Science & Engineering Fair.
“I had people next to me from Russia, from a small country called Jordan,” says Criner, the most recent student to receive the honor. “This [event] is some of the top scientists in the world.”
Criner’s experiment created a water purification system with limestone that could be used in third-world countries. It’s capable of making water mixed with poultry waste safe enough to drink.
“[The water] was just as clean as what we’re drinking,” he says, “and actually just a tiny percentage clearer than what people drink out of the tap nowadays.”
Criner says his success started back in elementary school, when he, like so many other students, would walk the award-filled hallway in the high school.
He’s hopeful his success will send the same message to future students: just because you may be small, doesn’t mean you can’t dream big.
“That’s that hope,” says Welch, “and you give them hope that’s all you can do.”
Welch says the increased emphasis on the science fair has also had an impact on ACT scores. Before the program started, Alpena ranked below the state average in science, which is already one of the lowest in the nation.
Now, students at Alpena rank at or above the national average.