“Sciencepalooza! started as a scrappy little thing at Eastridge Mall,” said Heidi Strahm Black who has served the East Side Union High School District since 1999 as coordinator of its annual science fair, sciencepalooza! Retiring in May 2020 from Synopsys Outreach Foundation and ESUHSD, Black reflects on her career trajectory and what led her to be a champion of science fairs in Santa Clara Valley.

“There were 647 students that first year,” recalls Black, whose whole family was enlisted to set up sciencepalooza! at Eastridge Mall in 2000. “My mom and dad, aunt and uncle, [husband] Corky, and I were there late—past 2am—setting up tables!” As more students from the eleven high schools in the East Side district participated each year, sciencepalooza! outgrew the mall. Now held at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, sciencepalooza! had 1300 student participants presenting some 500 projects at the February 1, 2020 event. Why is the science fair so big? “We want to remove all barriers to participation,” says Black, “we offer lots of student awards. We want to show that all students can do science and engineering—kids with limited English and kids with IEPs.”

Heidi Black
“I read around 3000+ project proposals a year!” exclaimed Black, who also serves on the board of directors for both the Santa Clara Valley Science & Engineering Championship and the South Valley Science & Engineering Fair. “I always give constructive feedback to help kids’ projects. I want to encourage their experiments and investigations.” Reflecting on her own experience at Independence High School, Heidi Black credits a favorite science teacher, John Grube, for inspiring her. “At UCSC I majored in environmental science. I thought I wanted to be a park ranger,” she laughs adding, “but I don’t do well being out in the heat.” She used her love of science to earn a single subject teaching credential in biology.

When Grube, still teaching in ESUHSD, invited Black to teach a freshman level general science course, she leaped at the opportunity. “I had to pay my dues, you know,” she comments, “I had to work up to teaching biology.” During her six years at Independence High School, Ms. Black eventually taught biology. Some years later, when she conceived of sciencepalooza! science fair, Black honored Grube by naming a student award after him.

A life-long learner, Heidi Strahm Black continued her professional education while teaching full time. She took courses in physics and lasers at UCSC and SJSU, earning a second teaching credential in physics. Black taught Physics at Oak Grove High School for ten years. That’s when San Francisco’s science museum, Exploratorium, snapped her up.

As the Teacher-in-Residence, Ms. Black was tasked with creating three “Science Snacks”—hands-on activities available on Exploratorium’s website. “It was physics teacher fantasyland!” she recalls, “they really model how to integrate the hands-on and they had really cool tech!” During the residency, Black also published several articles in The Physics Teacher. Always interested in the mechanics behind the bells-and-whistles, Ms. Black’s interest in lasers continued. She collaborated with Lawrence Livermore Labs to develop curriculum in a month-long teacher training program.

What’s next on the horizon for Heidi Strahm Black? While at the Exploratorium, she made several physics-themed quilts. “I realized that the ‘square’ in quilting formulas really represented squares!” There are several more quilts, not for science, she needs to finish. Ms. Black loves to photograph nature. “I plan to bring my camera to many national parks.” An avid hiker, she regularly hikes with a group of friends. As a science “fairee,” Heidi Strahm Black will continue supporting South Valley Science and Engineering Fair, Synopsys Championship, and, of course, sciencepalooza!

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