What Goes Into a Science & Engineering Fair Project
Every year hundreds of students in Santa Cruz County schools put in long hours researching and presenting their findings for the Science & Engineering Fair. How do they do it and what do they get out of it? To find out, we talked with a random sampling of students at the 2013 Science & Engineering Fair, held March 9 at the County Fairgrounds, and also talked to a longtime Science & Engineering Fair judge about the process.
Anna Maxwell and Adela Weigel of San Lorenzo Valley High School are passionate about oak trees. As students in Jane Orbuch’s environmental science class, they have been studying sudden oak death since the beginning of the school year.
"The sudden oak death pathogen came over from Europe in the 1990s and can wipe out oak species," Anna said. "Where we live you can see dead oaks — hillsides of dead trees. That affects ecosystems, causes soil erosion, more intense fires and loss of habitat."
No cure has been found, and researchers at UC Berkeley have been intensively studying the question. "It’s really exciting to talk to the Berkeley people and take part in their webinars," Adela said. She and Anna decided to look at one question — whether there’s a correlation between humidity and soil moisture and the spread of the pathogen — for their project.
They had thought, among other things, that raindrops dripping from leaf to leaf might be carrying the pathogen but found no conclusive evidence to prove the correlation. Scientists that they are, they figure they’ve ruled out one hypothesis and will look at another next year, their senior year at SLV High.
Jamie Kvaternik lives near the beach, goes there often and loves the ocean and water sports. "I don’t want the oceans to get poisoned with oil," he said. "We only really know about the top third of the oceans now, and we’ll never find out about the other two thirds if there’s oil in the water."
Given that interest, the Gateway Middle School seventh grader did a sea-related research project, testing to see if wave velocity is related to the depth of the water. He got the idea from a website called Science Buddies, then designed and modified his own experiment.
To avoid wind distortion, he conducted the experiment indoors at his house, dropping a board from bar clamps into a 46-centimetre long tank filled with varying depths of water. Given the short length of the tank, wave time was measured in fractions of a second. In order to obtain an accurate time, Jamie used the iMovie app to film the waves, then timed their velocity from the video.
His teacher, LeAnn Work, offered some ideas, which he regarded scientifically. "I refused some, accepted and modified others," he said. "The result was sort of what I expected. There was more wave velocity at higher water levels."
Emily Zamora, a sixth grader at Lakeview Middle School, just down the road from the fairgrounds, entered the Science & Engineering Fair for the first time this year. She’s enjoying science classes at the school and teamed up with three classmates — Karen Vega, Michele Balderas and Denise Ortega — to experiment with the formation of crystals.
"We wanted to make crystals and were interested in how people made them," she said. "The four of us just worked on it, and it took a week or two to do the experiments."
They decided to focus on water temperature by placing borax into jars that contained room-temperature water, an ice bath, and refrigerated water, then measuring the crystals that formed on string placed in the water. They found that the room-temperature jar produced the larger crystals.
A judge who came by to look at their exhibit asked a number of questions and mentioned that in a similar experiment, the refrigerated water had produced larger crystals. That got Emily, who represented her team at the actual display, thinking about possibilities.
"Maybe there was some difference in the composition of the string itself that would explain it," she said. "That could be something we look into next year."
Phoebe Failor comes from a family that eats a lot of fruits, and when she first heard about the Science & Engineering Fair in December, there was a lot of talk in the news about colds and the flu. The two factors combined to spark the New Brighton Middle School sixth grader to design an experiment to determine which common fruit contains the most Vitamin C.
This was her first Science & Engineering Fair project, so she set about it systematically and methodically, double-checking processes, researching experimental techniques and getting help from her teacher in designing the display boards.
She learned that she could get a Vitamin C measurement by creating a starch mixture, adding 500 mg of the ten or so fruits she tested to separate batches of mixture, then adding a two-percent iodine solution to the mixture drop by drop. The number of drops needed to turn the mixture purple correlated to the Vitamin C levels in the fruit.
"My idea was that oranges would have the most Vitamin C," Phoebe said, "but it turned out to be raspberries. That surprised me. I like science a lot because it’s fun and interesting to learn new things. Chemistry is probably my favorite."
Emily Hernandez, a junior at Watsonville High School, has been interested in science for a long time. In 2012 she did a summer science internship at UC-Santa Cruz that left her "very excited" and plans to take an Advanced Placement biology class her senior year.
She learned about the Science & Engineering Fair only in January, but really wanted to participate, so put together a project on short notice. "I’m fond of plants," she said, so her focus was testing the impact of native versus non-native plants on soil nutrients along Watsonville Slough.
Working with her mentor, biologist Carla Fresquez, as well as Monterey Bay Aquarium’s WATCH project, she has become immersed in native plants. "I’ve learned a lot about how great native plants are, how to take care of them, and the role they can play in the restoration of degraded habitats."
After finishing high school, Emily plans to attend Bastyr University, a natural medicine school, with campuses in San Diego and the Seattle area. "I really want to be an expert on plants and herbs and eventually become an acupuncturist," she said.
Ravi Nidumolu has been working with a physics research group at UC-Santa Cruz since the beginning of the school year. The Pacific Collegiate junior is part of a team looking into dark matter, invisible and little known, but which is estimated by scientists to make up the majority of mass in the universe.
Experiments conducted in colliders, aimed at penetrating the mysteries of dark matter, have encountered problems because tracking sensors used in the experiments are getting distortion caused by radiation given out from electron-proton collisions that are part of the experiment.
Ravi’s project has to do with running computer simulations in order to come up with a way of screening out the radiation (or at least some of it) to get better measurements within the collider. His project, "Throwing Light on Dark Matter," reports the findings, which he describes as "a mixed bag."
"It’s cool to learn more about the laws of the universe and what makes up the universe," Ravi said. His higher-education plans? "I’d like to study science or engineering at the best college I can get into — MIT, if possible," he said.
With such a diverse range of projects to consider, how does a judge make sense of it all? There are probably as many answers as there are judges (dozens), but we asked one judge for his take on the process.
Roger Garcia is a senior manager of component engineering at Oracle in Santa Clara. He participated in science fairs when he was in school and became a judge in the Santa Cruz County Science & Engineering Fair after seeing a posting on a web site for volunteer opportunities.
In addition to the points on the score sheet, what does he look for?
"I’d say the main thing I look for is how much enthusiasm the students have and if they have a real grasp of the project. I think the judges’ main job is to get students to want to be scientists. There’s a shortage of scientists in our society, so we want to get them (students) to continue in that field."
Thank you to Michael Wallace for the article, and to Adam Wade and Miguel Aznar for the photos.