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Science Fair Whiz Kids

At a table in Eastern Kentucky University’s Alumni Hall, Noy Schaal shows she’s found a way to “manufacture” what is arguably a girl’s best friend. No, she’s not an alchemist forming diamonds from dust. Schaal is a budding scientist plying creative thinking, mathematics, and chemistry using a high-tech contraption developed by an assistant Cornell University engineering professor, to “print” or fabricate chocolate during the fifth annual Kentucky State Science and Engineering Fair.

In a nutshell, Schaal spent two months dissecting chocolate for its composition properties. She then fed her data into her computer to obtain just the right “recipe” for color, texture, and volume. Finally, after downloading plans for a fabber, a 3-D printer or rapid prototyping machine used in manufacturing, Schaal started manufacturing chocolate bars at her desktop. Her efforts were even mentioned in the February 26, 2007, edition of Chronicle Online, Cornell’s online magazine.

But at the Kentucky State Science and Engineering Fair, Schaal was as enthusiastic about the potential of the technology as she was about catching the eye of fair judges.

“I think eventually with technology, people could download recipes on the Internet to ‘print’ all kinds (of food), including chocolate,” says Schaal, at the time a freshman at Manual High School in Louisville. “The possibilities are endless.”

Schaal was one of about 160 young people from middle and high schools across Kentucky who assembled at EKU the last weekend in March to showcase the fruits of their scientific labors and to compete for prizes, bragging rights, and college scholarships. Each student scientist qualified for the state competition after winning similar regional competitions. State fair winners advanced to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in May where they competed with counterparts from 40 countries worldwide.

“These kids are the best of the best in the state,” says Tom Crawford, Professor Emeritus of chemistry at the University of Louisville and co-founder of the Kentucky State Science and Engineering Fair. “The level of sophistication in these projects just blows me away. I’ve got a Ph.D. in chemistry and I have to read some of these titles more than once.”

According to Crawford, the path to the statewide science fair begins when kids scour the Internet or brainstorm with peers and teachers for science topics they can investigate in-depth and develop into fair-worthy projects. For some, it’s the scientific process that attracts, but for others like Erin Hertzenberg, then an eighth-grader at Sts. Peter & Paul middle school in California, Kentucky, learning more about a personal interest is most compelling.

“I’m a scrapbooker,” says Hertzenberg, “and I enjoy photography. So I wondered how to improve the quality of the history we’re preserving for the future.”

Hertzenberg went about learning if there is a quality difference in photos taken with brand-name or generic disposable cameras. She took dozens of pictures with each, then polled peers, teachers, parents, and friends about their comparative quality.

Upon examination, the data showed that the shots made with the brand-name camera were preferred. But beyond the quality difference, Hertzenberg says she discovered other things as well.

“During the experiment, I learned that some people pay more attention to color when they view a photograph; some look for definition in the image; others look for the quality of skin tone in subjects’ faces,” she says. “I hadn’t thought about those aspects before.”

According to Karen Kidwell, science consultant for the Kentucky Department of Education and a member of the Kentucky Science and Engineering Fair’s board of directors, those unexpected revelations make science fair participation at all levels so valuable to young people.

“Kids not only learn to do science—to complete the investigation, analyze the data, and think critically—but they learn lots of other things as well, just by having to see the project through and then having to defend their results to the judges,” Kidwell says. “It’s a real-world experience on many levels.”

And it’s real-world experience kids need to compete with counterparts for jobs in industries and technologies—some of which have not yet appeared on the horizon. As executive vice president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation, a nonprofit organization that helps innovative individuals and fledgling corporations develop new scientific and engineering technologies, Joanne Lang believes Kentucky’s economic future hinges on the development of its young scientists.

“In the future, we’ll need hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers,” says Lang. “These kids will have jobs that haven’t even been invented. If we can’t educate kids to fill those jobs, Kentucky will be a backwater. These kids will be creating the economy and solving the problems of the future.”

But Alysse Kearns doesn’t want to wait. The Gallatin Middle School eighth-grader is working on solving one of the world’s problems right now. As farm fields are replaced by housing developments, making the most of crop-friendly resources is crucial. Kearns wondered if water quality and growth enhancers made significant differences in plant performance and yield.

She planted wheat, corn, and Kentucky 31 grass, and watered plant subjects with water from a pond on her property, pure bottled water, and a mixture of water and a brand-name plant food.

“The plants did the best with the pond water,” Kearns says, “and they molded with the plant food mix.”

Kearns’ 2007 science project was an extension of a similar project she developed for last year’s round of science fairs. That round of experiments examined the effects of plant food treatments on plants. But while she admits to being fascinated with the sciences of botany and agriculture, Kearns says she’s not ready to commit to a scientific career.

“Going though the scientific process is interesting to me,” she says. “But I think it’s too early to make that kind of career decision.”

But for young people who have set their sights on a life in science, science-focused events provide a chance to get a jumpstart on their own futures.

“If a kid is in sports, he or she gets a chance to practice. It’s not just about reading playbooks,“ says Kidwell. “Science fairs and other science-focused events give kids a chance to practice what they learn outside the classroom. There’s no substitute for that.”

That point is not lost on Philip Brochu of Richmond, a Model Laboratory School sixth-grader with speed on his mind. With a handful of balloons, a few corks, some string, and some straws, Brochu investigated the properties of thrust—all with the dream of sending rockets skyward some day.

“The best part is getting to do the experiments and test the theory. It’s much better than just reading about it,” says Brochu. “This is my first science fair, and I want to be a scientist, so I want to do more.”

For Tom Crawford, Brochu’s are welcome words, especially since extracurricular science programs are tough sells to parents, teachers, and even school systems.

“That’s partly because youngsters’scientific achievements aren’t likely to garner community attention the way athletic and other programs do,” Crawford says. “The science fairs showcase these kids’ talents. And I’m so impressed by what they have done, I feel much better about the future.”





HOW TO START A SCIENCE FAIR

Projects that make it to the floor of the Kentucky State Science and Engineering Fair frequently involve completing complicated procedures, but the path to bringing science fairs into local schools is simple, according to Karen Kidwell of the science branch of the Kentucky Department of Education. All it takes, she says, is desire on the part of parents, teachers, and school administrators.

“Parents can talk with principals and with members of their site-based councils that determine curriculum to create science fairs,” she says. “In elementary schools, teachers and parent/teacher organizations can get together to put a program together very easily.”

But while science fairs have definite appeal to youngsters already thinking scientifically, kids with other interests need not be left out of their schools’ science-focused activities. Programs such as a Science Extravaganza can help kids with interests—ranging from art to writing to computer graphics—find their places in the scientific world, too.

Through such programs, students with artistic skills can create illustrations to accompany projects; kids with a knack for journalism can write feature stories about projects or about the event; and computer whiz kids can create computer models, even animation, to graphically demonstrate the projects’ research progress and results.

“Kids don’t have to be interested in doing science in order to participate in science-based activities,” Kidwell says. “In the future, we’re going to need artists and writers to illustrate and communicate scientific concepts to the general public. This kind of event is a great way to show those kids how they can contribute to science and technology.”

Establishing science fairs or other science-focused activities in local schools is not an expensive proposition, says Kidwell. Parents and school councils can recruit volunteers to help in planning and executing fairs or other events. Financial support, if necessary, can be community-driven.

“These events are wonderful ways to bring the business community and the schools together,” says Kidwell. “In general, it’s not that difficult to put together a science fair or other science-based activity on a shoestring.”

For more information about introducing science fairs or other science-focused activities in local schools, parents, teachers, and school administrators can contact Kidwell by e-mail at karen.kidwell@education.ky.gov.




UNDERWRITING THE FUTURE

When Tom Crawford, Dr. Nancy Keck, and a quartet of others hatched the notion of a statewide science and engineering fair in 2002, they had plenty of zeal but not a lot of cash to support it. Since then, businesses high-tech and low-tech, individuals, academic, and community service organizations have all pitched in to help underwrite the event.

The fair has long had plenty of academic support. The administration of Eastern Kentucky University donates fair site facilities, EKU bioscience Professor Barbara Ramey organizes the event’s host committee, and retired EKU Professor Robert Creek serves as the fair’s director annually.

But at a cost of more than $25,000 to underwrite the state science competition, Keck says sponsorship participation remains critical.

“Our dream would be to eventually find a large commercial organization to underwrite the state science fair,” says Keck, president of New Directions Unlimited LLC, a Louisville-based strategic planning firm and one of the state science fair cofounders. “But that’s not to say we aren’t grateful to the companies, organizations, and individuals who have supported the state fair for the past five years. Without them, the event wouldn’t be possible. And we could not do this without the extraordinary support that EKU gives us.”

Fund-raising for the Kentucky State Science Fair begins with an annual solicitation aimed at existing sponsors and potential new ones, according to Tom Crawford, director of development for the Kentucky State Science Fair.

“We send letters and try to make as many connections as we can any way we can,” Crawford says. “The funds we raise are directly applied to the expenses of the Kentucky Science and Engineering Fair.”

Through the nonprofit Kentucky Science Fair Endowment, funds are disbursed to regional science fairs around the state, as well as to defray costs of the state science fair. Endowment funds are also used to send state and regional science fair winners to the International Science and Engineering Fair annually.

“Depending upon where the international fair takes place, the cost can be quite high,” Crawford says. “And we don’t want any child to be unable to compete internationally because of finances.”

Donations to the Kentucky State Science Fair are tax-deductible. Companies, civic or professional associations, and individuals interested in learning how to help support science fairs in Kentucky can contact Crawford by e-mail at thcraw01@louisville.edu.





MORE ON THE KENTUCKY SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING FAIR

To learn more about the Kentucky Science and Engineering Fair, its rules, application requirements, and related special events, visit online at www.kysef.eku.edu.

Information about the Kentucky Science Fair Endowment may be found at www.lrsf.org
. Click the Links button for a listing of resources for parents, teachers, and young scientists interested in establishing or participating in science fairs in their schools or regions.




KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: VIRTUAL MENTORS

To learn about the Kentucky Science Support Network—a network of more than 200 scientists—and ask scientific research questions via e-mail on topics such as robotics, genetics, space science, and more, click here: science mentors.

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