Julisa Castillo, who just finished the fourth grade at R.A. Hall Elementary, recently received a trophy, medal, plaque and congratulatory letter promising an all-expenses-paid trip to Space Camp.
The items claimed to have come from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and were reported in Saturday’s Bee-Picayune and mysoutex.com Web site.
The problem is that the NSF said it has never seen this letter and that all of the items are a poor misrepresentation of the foundation’s logo.
The major tip-offs proving the falseness of the letter, other than the incorrect logo, include a lack of signature or contact information. The confirming piece of evidence is that the NSF does not hold any kind of science fair at all.
“Neither the plaque nor the letter is authentic, and this amounts to fraudulent use of NSF’s name and logo. This matter has been referred to our Office of the Inspector General,” said Maria Zacharias, group leader in the NSF public affairs division.
Besides all of these factors, Zacharias said that it would be unusual for the topic “Disproving Global Warming” to beat 50,000 other entries, as the letter claimed.
“Global warming is kind of a fact,” said Zacharias. “The controversy is over how much of it is caused by humans.”
The scam was discovered and independently investigated by an overwhelming number of bloggers in the online science community.
Some of these, including university level science professors, inquired because they knew that no “National Science Fair” exists. Some even called the incident a political hoax due to the nature of the topic and the mentioning of former Vice President Al Gore as a member of the judging panel.
However, the issue is not about what Julisa chose to research or how she did it, but why someone would fabricate a science fair, especially with such elaborate prizes.
What about the trip to space camp? While the U.S. Space & Rocket Center could not reveal whether Julisa is registered, it was able to confirm that it has not been contacted by the NSF or any group operating under the name “National Science Fair.”
If the NSF did not send Julisa her letter and prizes, who did?
Some suspicions have arisen about Julisa’s father, Dr. J.R. Castillo, a local engineer and musician. Castillo informed the school of Julisa’s accomplishments and provided the information for the original news story regarding Julisa’s winnings.
R.A. Hall School Principal Martina Villarreal then contacted the Bee-Picayune so that Julisa could be recognized for such an outstanding achievement.
Villarreal did not know the specifics of the fair, the application process or the awards.
It may be difficult to find a motive for falsifying a science fair win, particularly using the name of a real, national organization.
Castillo said that his daughter discovered the contest through an ad for the “National Science Fair” on an educational Web site, but he did not remember which site.
According to Castillo, there was no entry fee for the fair, and the family had been in contact with someone in Arlington, Va., claiming to be the NSF. The actual NSF is based in the same city.
However, Castillo said that they did not have a copy of the application, and the packaging for the awards had already been thrown out.
Castillo said he believed someone had gone to great lengths to deceive his family and he had no idea why.
No matter who created this mind-boggling scam, the intentions behind it remain unclear.
Nevertheless, a local fourth-grade science project and resulting news story have caused an astonishing commotion in the science community nationwide.
Sarah Taylor is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or firstname.lastname@example.org.