Martha’s Vineyard science fair generated plenty of interest

Science fair overflowed the high school lunchroom and filled the library too. — Picasa

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s 13th annual science fair, held Saturday, involved 233 students who presented nearly 150 science projects, and another 60 students in a wind turbine design competition. This event, which once fit so comfortably in the high school cafeteria, now overflows that space and spills over to the library and its conference room as well.

Suzan Bellincampi of Felix Neck Sanctuary, who’s been a science fair judge for every one of its 13 years, said Saturday: “It’s really mind-boggling how this has grown. The kids seem to be taking the science fair a lot more seriously now. The projects are so great this year – they’ve really taken it to a new level.”

The science fair has grown so big that it now needs more judges – 47 of them this year – than it had exhibits in the early years. With 19 projects in biology, a dozen each in chemistry, physics and environmental science, and a whopping 78 projects in this year’s hottest new field of engineering, it was simply impossible for one person to see more than a fraction of all the work on display in the span of two hours.

The new emphasis on engineering was a great success for the science fair this year, said Elliott Bennett, who chairs the high school science department. “Engineering is a component of most science fairs, but we’d never really pushed it until this year,” she said. “Engineering, problem-solving and design, is big in education now, and we decided this was the next logical step for these kids. They already understand how to design an experiment: now, let’s get them creating things.”

Data supporting the hypothesis that kids loved this new focus was everywhere — from the chair Dana Jacobs built entirely from recycled cardboard to Kevin Burchill’s homemade seismograph and Isabel Smith’s design for a stormwater catchbasin. Here, from the notebook of an overwhelmed reporter, are a few examples of the creativity on display at the science fair:

* Katherine Donegan designed an air-scrubber for a woodstove flue that reduces carbon dioxide output by 75 percent. Her working model has a spinning filter filled with crystals that absorb carbon dioxide. Motorizing the filter does use more energy, she agreed, but in her tests it greatly increased its effectiveness.

There’s trial and error involved when you’re building things for the real world, said Katherine: “At first when I spun the filter, a lot of the material inside flew out. I had to add more screens to keep it in.” She started research for her fair exhibit in January, and seemed to have enjoyed a project that involves building a working device: “I think it’s been more interesting than just studying something.”

* Sophomore Molly Wallace set out to develop her own recipe for chapstick after reading an online article about chapstick addiction and realizing she has most of the symptoms herself. “I thought this would be a fun project,” she said, “to see if you could make your own with simple ingredients that are all natural.”

In the course of her project, Molly went through three recipes, trying different ratios of ingredients and scents. Adjusting the formula so it softened and hardened at the right temperatures was important, she said. In her first attempts the cocoa butter scent was overwhelming; she tempered that with olive oil.

Molly said her third version of the chapstick recipe is something she might actually use, but her favorite is still from Bert’s Bees. “I also like Blistex,” she said. “I have them both in my bag.”

* Freshmen Eli Hanschka and Russell Shapiro took a third-place prize for their physics project, studying the effects of parachute shape on drop velocity. They hypothesized that a circular chute would descend most slowly, and their elegantly-designed experiment showed just that.

“We cut our parachutes so they’d all have the same surface area – 144 square centimeters each,” said Russell. “We punched four holes in all the shapes,” said Eli, “and used equal string lengths to hold a washer. Our only variable was the parachute’s shape.”

They dropped each parachute from a balcony 10 times, and timed each descent with a stopwatch. “The circular parachute had the slowest drop velocity of 118 centimeters per second,” said Eli.

* Jack O’Malley and Kyle Joba-Woodruff teamed up to build the winning wind turbine, which cranked out 4 volts and 26 milliamps during its stint inside physics teacher Dana Munn’s wind tunnel. The secret of their design, Jack said, was a tiny gearbox from a model airplane engine which tripled the rotating speed of the two turbine blades.

“There’s a trade-off with the gearbox,” Jack said, “because it’s a little bit harder to get it going. But we found a rotor design that’s very efficient, and once it gets up to speed, it produces a lot more electricity.”

Chemistry teacher Natalie Munn, who coordinated the science fair for its first decade (Jackie Hermann has taken over for the past three years), was delighted with the excitement the project-based exhibits added to this year’s event. “We’ve seen a lot of really cool, functional designs,” she said.

Agreed Ms. Bennett, the department chairman: “This is so much fun, because the kids are so excited about their projects – this is a great way for them to show off what they do academically.”

2012 Science Fair Awards

Dr. James H. Porter Grand Winner Awards

Tisbury Waterways sponsors these awards in honor of former president, who designed catchment basins to filter and remove dangerous pollutants in road run-off and changed the health of our waters.

1: Lee Faraca and Gordon Moore, Cost Efficiency — Solar versus Wind Energy.

2: Jack Wallace, Homework Buddy.

3: Charlotte Hall, Ceramic Glazes — Chemistry and Art Combined at High Fire.

GenOn Wind Turbine Engineering Competition

1: Jack O’Malley and Kyle Joba-Woodruff.

2: Antone Lima

3: Maya Harcourt and Michael Schroeder

Category Winners


1: Jack Yuen, “Do You Really Catch More Flies With Honey?” 2: Willow Wunch, “The Growth of Mold Under Different Conditions.” 3: Eleah Caseau and Amanda Fielding, “The Effect of Gender Identity on Short-Term Memory.”


1: Colin Cameron and Elie Jordi, “Food Scraps to Biofuel.” 2: Lucy Hackney and Zana Van Rooyen, “Glass vs. Plexiglass.” 3: Anne Ollen, “Which Antacid Works Best?”


1: Brian Donegan and Aaron Teves, “Variations of Strength in Paper.” 2: Luke McCracken and Kevin Montambault, “Gaussian Accelerator.” 3: Eli Hanschka and Russell Shapiro, “The Effect of Parachute Shape on Its Drop Velocity.”

Environmental Science

1: Lee Faraca and Gordon Moore, “Cost Efficiency: Solar vs. Wind Energy.” 2: Josie Iadicicco and Sabrina Reppert, “Garbage Separation.” 3: Mike Mussell and Tim Roberts, “Dissolved Oxygen in Water vs. Temperature and Salinity.”

Engineering Design (Product-Based)

1: Jack Wallace, “Homework Buddy.” 2: Nathaniel Horwitz, “Waterfall of Renewable Energy.” 3: Dana Jacobs, “The Cardboard Chair.”

Engineering Design (Process-Based)

1: Charlotte Hall, “Ceramic Glazes: Chemistry and Art Combined at High Fire.” 2: Alayna Hutchinson, “Portable Water Purification.” 3 (tie): Lucy Norris, “Friendly Fuel of the Future,” and Isabel Smith, “Creating the Most Effective Catch Basin.”

Overall Science Fair Winners

1, Lee Faraca and Gordon Moore. 2, Jack Wallace. 3, Charlotte Hall.

Wind Turbine Competition

1, Jack O’Malley and Kyle Joba-Woodruff. 2, April Hargy and Antone Lima. 3, Maya Harcourt and Michael Schroeder.

Special Topic Awards

Cape Light Compact Award for an energy-related project: Andrew Ruimerman.

The David Brand Award for an outstanding earth science project: Lee Faraca and Gordon Moore.

Friends of Sengekontacket Award for a project on water quality or salt marsh ecology: Isabel Smith.

Island Grown Initiative Awards for projects that focus on agricultural systems and techniques that support biodiversity or address traditional or historic Island agriculture: Alayna Hutchinson.

Lagoon Pond Association Award for a project that addresses a water quality issue with application to the protection of the water resources of Martha’s Vineyard: Galen Mayhew.

Marine and Paleobiological Research Institute Award for an outstanding marine or coastal science project that might include any aspect of science, fishing, engineering, or conservation: Galen Mayhew.

Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters Association Award for a project that focuses on increasing the awareness and understanding of aspects of our marine environment provided in memory of Donald K. Boyd: Isabel Smith.

Sustainability Awards presented to the top male and female projects that involve the recycling or reuse of materials for a new purpose, or that involve methods of reducing energy or materials consumption sponsored by the Munn Family: Charlotte Lowell-Bettencourt.