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2014 International Science and Engineering Fair

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Jenny

2014 International Science and Engineering Fair

Recently, as I was driving to work I heard a story on NPR about a local 9th grader, Jonathan Berman, who would be attending the White House’s annual science fair for the second time, he was first invited for a project he did in 2010 when he was just 11 (link). Berman’s team created a bracelet that gently vibrates when repetitive motions are detected in order to discretely alert the person wearing the bracelet and encourage them to stop.

I was amazed by all that this young man has accomplished before such a young age. But this level of high achievement is not unique to this individual; kids all over the world are redefining what it means to be a teenager through the creativity, innovation, and thoroughness shown in their science fair projects. This past May, I had the great honor of meeting some of these science Rock Stars at Intel’s annual International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which was held at the LA Convention Center this year from May 11 – May 16, 2014. ISEF is the largest pre-college scientific research event in the world, bringing more than 1,700 high school students from over 70 countries and territories together to showcase their research and compete for roughly $5 million dollars in awards in 17 different categories.

As a Grand Awards judge, I evaluated 19 of the 67 projects in ISEF’s Animal Sciences category. The caliber of science fair projects at this fair was unlike anything I could ever have imagined, certainly nothing like the projects I have judged at the local, state, and regional science fairs over the last decade. To give you an idea of what I mean by “high caliber” I’ll describe the projects that won awards in the Animal Sciences category this year:

  • One project examined the potential unintended consequences and negative effects of mosquito pesticides on staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis). The findings of this student’s study has important implications because Acropora used to blanket the Caribbean, serving as the primary reef building coral, but over the last 40 years they have experienced a 95% decline in their populations, and were the first corals to be listed on the US endangered species list in 2006.
  • Two students from India worked together to find a more effective treatment for Giardia, a intestinal disease that infects humans and other animals. After much research, and trial and error the students identified Rubusellipticus, a naturally occurring wild herb, was more effective, cheaper, and had far fewer side effects than all of the current medications used to treat Giardia. Their findings are important because Giardia is caused by an intestinal parasite that is ubiquitous in the environment and has a worldwide distribution. The world Health Organization estimates more than 200 million people are infected with the parasite every year, but in India (where these students are from) the occurrence is much higher with as more than 11% of their population infected at any given time.
  • Another student, motivated by the recent diagnosis of a close family member, set out to identify a compound that could accelerate adult stem cell differentiation. The student identified L-Leucine, which appeared more effective and could be made available at a fraction of the price of the existing compounds being used. The student had already received letters from pharmaceutical companies who want to work with him.

While interviewing each of these students I couldn’t help but wonder where they would be going for college, what they would be majoring in, and ultimately what they would be doing 10-20 years from now. It also made me wonder how students are becoming involved in Science Fairs these days? Is it part of a class they are required to take in school? An elective? Extra credit option? An after school club, etc?

While my once award winning “Splat” project wouldn’t have stood a chance against these contestants, I’m still glad my parents encouraged me to take them seriously because they helped to shape me into the scientist I am today.

Looking back on my own experience my elementary school required students to do a science fair project every year, but the projects were done at home. Teachers would offer assistance to any students that needed it, but for the most part it was up to our parents to help us with our projects. I was fortunate because my parents were very good at finding the right balance between helping me without doing the projects for me, which probably wasn’t too surprising considering my mom was a school teacher and my dad was a scientist. From infancy they had encouraged me to explore and question the world around me, as I got older they begun responding to some of my questions by saying something to the effect of “that would make a great science fair project.” They would help me by pointing out flaws in the project design and making sure I was using the scientific method appropriately, but they were careful to never give me the answers or do anything for me.

For any teachers and/or students reading this blog post, how are science fair projects used in your schools?

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