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March 15, 2014

Teacher developed Oneonta's science fairs in the late 1930s

The Daily Star

---- — Enthusiasm toward science, engineering and technology abounds these days among our area’s youth, as teams such as Sidney Project Lead the Way and Otsego 4-H FIRST Robotics, also known as “RoboKronos,” have been busy preparing and competing in meets in Binghamton and Troy, with robots they created.

The same kind of enthusiasm toward chemistry existed 75 years ago this month among our area high schoolers, with the beginning of what was called a “Chem Congress.”

The Oneonta Daily Star reported on Thursday, March 9, 1939, “A chemistry congress, which is a new type of educational project for this area, will be held at Oneonta high school Saturday, March 25, under the supervision of Mrs. Madeleine F. Coutant, chemistry instructor. Hartwick college will co-operate, and members of the High school Chem squad will assist.” Coutant began teaching in Oneonta in 1931.

“Students from the college and four or more high schools will give lecture demonstrations, and pupils from at least 10 other high schools will attend and take part in a discussion of the demonstrations and other matters of interest. A local amateur operator will set up a radio station and demonstrate the sending of messages to other amateurs in the community.”

Oneonta High School was then found on Academy Street, and reports didn’t mention whether the event was held in the auditorium or gymnasium, but wherever it was held it was crowded, as the first Chem Congress drew more than 350 students and teachers.

“While Mrs. Coutant … had general supervision over the program,” The Oneonta Herald reported on March 30, “the congress was almost entirely initiated, planned, and produced by the students. Keen interest was shown by the visitors, who came from as far away as Schenectady, Binghamton, Manlius, Delhi and Prattsville. Practically all vicinity high schools were represented.”

Scientific books were awarded to students who were judged to have contributed the most to the success of the first event.

“So successful was the gathering,” the Herald continued, “that Oneonta was officially designated as a scientific center to represent the American institute of the City of New York, an organization which now carries on work throughout the state, and tentative plans were laid for an all-day gathering of a similar nature next year, with other sciences, as well as chemistry, to have places on the program.”

The 1940 edition of this event was renamed to Science Congress, and moved to a later date, Saturday, April 13. Once again the OHS Chem Squad worked with Mrs. Coutant to make the event bigger and better.

It turned out to be good planning by moving the event to what was then the Oneonta Junior High building, also on Academy Street, remembered by many as the “South Building” in later years. The gymnasium had bleachers and more floor space, and it was certainly needed as nearly 500 attended the daylong event, which included a noontime luncheon served in the school’s “homemaking” building.

The Star reported on Monday, April 15, that William North White, a 14-year-old freshman at Walton High School, took the grand prize of the day.

“White’s exhibit of dyes earned him a trip to the World’s fair at New York with all expenses paid by the institute, also a day at Schenectady as guest of the General Electric Co. In the latter city he will take part in the science forum broadcast Thursday, May 2.” These programs aired on WGY radio from 1936-1949, according to Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette’s book, “Science On the Air.”

Oneonta’s Science Congress continued under Mrs. Coutant’s direction until 1952 even though she had moved on to become a professor of chemistry at Hartwick College in 1946. She took a job with the state Education Department in 1952.

Coutant was remembered for many other local contributions upon her passing away in November 1989. Among them she was one of the founders and a charter member in 1940 of the Oneonta branch of the American Association of University Women, and was executive director of the Susquehanna Manpower Corp. in Oneonta, similar to the national Job Corps.

The Science Congress remained the big feather in her career cap, as, “In 1987, Mrs. Coutant was a finalist for the Excellence and Equity in Education Award. The recommendation, sent in by the Oneonta branch of the A.A.U.W., cited her work in initiating a science congress and fair for high school students … which was later expanded to a state, national, and now international fair under the sponsorship of Science Services,” The Daily Star reported. It is known today as the Society for Science & the Public, a nonprofit member organization.

On Monday: Two plane crashes within days of each other shook the Oneonta area.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at