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Bemidji Middle School Science Fair: Remembering the man who started it all

He is described as the man who made science fun. Whether it was building a ceiling-high rocket in the classroom or designing a miniature space shuttle in the hallway, the late science teacher Bob Schultz certainly made a lasting impression at Bemidji Middle School.

Schultz's enthusiasm and passion for hands-on activities is also what spurred him to start the first Science Fair at BMS.

In honor of BMS' 25th annual Science Fair, to be held from 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, at the school, organizers are reviving old Science Fair activities which have not been done in years.

Science Fairs have been a part of the Bemidji community since 1953, when the first Minnesota Regional Science Fair was held at Bemidji State University. But it was not until 1986 when the first local Science Fair was held. Schultz, a newly-hired science teacher at BMS, brought it to life.

"If you remember (Schultz) at all, you remember his personality and how positive and energetic he was," said BMS social studies teacher Mark Fodness, who was a close friend to Schultz. "That's what you needed to get the ball rolling on something like this."

Fodness said he remembers the first Science Fairs at BMS were a "little less structured" than the fairs held today. The Science Fair was held in the cafeteria for many years until it was too big for the space. Paper airplane-building contests and tower-building competitions were held alongside the students' science fair presentations. This matched Schultz's personality, Fodness said.

"There were all sorts of contests," Fodness said. "It was very hand-on, which is just the way he taught in his classroom. It was like going to a fair. The kids loved it."

Peter Sullivan, a sixth-grade science teacher at BMS, also taught with Schultz. He said he remembers he had a tremendous passion for teaching and would spend hours of his time preparing students for the Science Fair.

"He had gone to Potlatch (Corporation in Bemidji) and gotten donated quarter-inch dress board, sawed them, got lawn chair ribbing and stapled them to hold the seams together," Sullivan said. "Those were the first science fair boards which he provided to the kids."

Schultz taught science at BMS for several years, even after he was diagnosed with cancer.

"He taught until he was so sick he couldn't go to school," Fodness said. "He was unbelievable."

"He wanted to be with the kids," Sullivan added.

Schultz eventually succumbed to the disease in 1992, but has since not been forgotten. The "Bob Schultz Award" was created by staff and faculty at the school and to this day is given to the student with the best overall Science Fair project. A plaque honoring Schultz and the student winners rests near the school office.

This year's BMS Science Fair is showcasing more than 500 student projects. It is one of the largest middle school Science Fairs held annually in Minnesota.

Sullivan and Fodness both agreed if Schultz was alive today he would still be actively involved in the fair.

"I think he would be proud of the fact that it has continued and it's grown," Fodness said. "A lot has evolved into things that weren't his strength (such as having judges from the community participate). We might have a few more hands-on things that maybe are coming back now. I think he'd like to see that."

BMS seventh-grade science teacher Mark Studer said although he did not personally know Schultz, he thinks Schultz would have thought "it was pretty cool" that BMS sends between 10-20 students each year to the regional science fair and an average of 10 students to the state science fair.

"If you have a middle school person who is willing to serve and is energetic, like Bob Schultz was, then the continuation of the Science Fair is a lot easier," Studer said.

"I think it comes down to a person who wants to be a leader and has passion in it," Sullivan added.

Schultz's daughter, Angela Schultz, who is currently a science teacher in Cross Lake, Minn., is scheduled to present the "Bob Schultz Award" Thursday evening at the school. She could not be reached for comment.

The memory of Schultz lives on at BMS and his legend comes to life every February with the Science Fair.

"He was very positive and very much focused on kids," Fodness said. "He was always getting kids involved."

"He was so creative," Sullivan added. "He reached the at-risk kids. He had a special place for those kids. He was hands-on and also understanding. When students made mistakes, it didn't matter."