High school science fair draws hundreds
On Saturday the parking lot at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) was full of cars - as many as for a football game or a sellout show at the Performing Arts Center - for the annual high school science fair. Earlier in the morning, while the judges interviewed the exhibitors, the cafeteria and the library had been quiet and serious, but by 11 am when the public was admitted, the place was buzzing as students, teachers, and spectators milled about and volunteers dispensed bagels, fair guides, and door-prize tickets. The crowds were so thick it was hard to get around to see the hundreds of exhibits. Some young scientists dutifully stayed by their display boards to explain the gadgets, photos, and test results to parents and friends, but many congregated in large clumps to laugh and chat as they waited for the results. There was a celebratory atmosphere in the noisy rooms and hallways. What was being celebrated was curiosity, knowledge, and brains.
Blake Stelle, grand prize winner, receives a certificate from Superintendent of Schools James Weiss. Photos by Ralph Stewart
Two hundred and thirty students, almost a third of the school, participated. Add 51 judges and scores of other volunteers, plus parents, friends, and interested outsiders, and there was a large crowd. When fair coordinator Natalie Munn came to the rostrum to announce the winners, the cafeteria was packed with people wall to wall.
Riding on worms
The grand winner was junior Blake Stelle. Her project tested the hatching rates of worm cocoons at different temperature ranges. Ms. Stelle's mother, neurologist Dr. Barbara A. Stelle, happens also to be a worm farmer. She grows the worms (Eisenia fetida) to sell to organic gardeners, who use the worms to process compost. Having a ready supply of subjects on which to experiment has served young Ms. Stelle well, as she won the fair last year with a different worm project.
Each project is evaluated by two judges and scored on 14 criteria, such as hypothesis, experiment design, controls, data collection, analysis, presentation, and application. Each competitor is interviewed and scored on the interview. The highest score in each of six categories is the winner, and there are three grand winners, as well as prizes donated for specific categories [see sidebar]. Ms. Stelle's Eisenia fetida project was also first in the environmental science category and won a "Water Award" as well.
The actual scores are never announced, but the judges' comments are relayed to the students. One judge called Ms. Stelle's project "Impressive in many ways. A substantial effort. Great replication, beautifully presented [with] clear information, display, and graphs."
Celeste Bailey explains her project.
Ms. Stelle will take her worm experiment to the regional competition on March 17 at Bridgewater State College, and then, along with the team competition winners, Cody Coutinho and Taylor Smith, she will represent MVRHS at the state science fair at M.I.T. in May.
According to Ms. Munn, 10 to 15 students will be chosen to attend the regional science fair at Bridgewater, where some may place high enough to move on to the state competition. Ms. Stelle, Mr. Coutinho, and Mr. Smith will automatically go to the state fair.
The second grand prize went to Eliza Gowell for her experiment using natural pesticides on fruit flies. Ms. Gowell told The Times that she was surprised by her results, which were that half of the substances she tested were 100 percent effective in killing fruit flies. Crushed red pepper, among other household items, worked very well.
Third grand prize went to Evan Kendall, who studied the future of wind power on Martha's Vineyard. He told The Times that six or seven wind turbines of the size proposed for the Cape Wind Project would supply 100 percent of the Vineyard's electricity needs.
Zach Coutinho tested the strength of fishing line.
Where do science fair
projects come from?
The Times asked Ms. Munn, a chemistry teacher now in her eighth year as fair coordinator, if there were a standard source for science fair projects. She conceded that there are books in the school library and Internet sites where students can find projects to replicate. "There's nothing wrong with that," she said. "Scientists often replicate the work of others." However, she said that a great number of MVRHS projects come from the students' own experience and curiosity. She said that she asks students what they like to do. "A project can be about anything: sports, video games, even eating." Does a student play ice hockey? Is he ever curious about why the pucks are frozen before a game? A student could devise a simple test: put pucks in the freezer and in the oven, see how high they bounce. The whole project could be done in a few hours.
Many of this year's projects arose from the students' curiosity in just this way. Jane Alexander told The Times that she had noticed one night that her dinner of Caesar salad and steak au poivre tasted unpleasantly stronger than usual. She wondered if the workout she had done just before dinner had boosted her taste response. Her experiment asked girls on the basketball team to compare test liquids (salt, sweet, sour, etc.) before and after practice.
Connor Lodge explains his project to judge Erin Simmons.
Bethany Pennington said that a carpenter in her family had got her thinking about the relative strengths of wood glues. In her study, Krazy Glue held the best, Elmer's was not too bad, and Gorilla Glue (a favorite of many) was the worst.
Naturally, the difficulty of the science and the polish of the presentations varied widely. Ms. Munn was proud of the large number of participants, not just honors or AP students. She told The Times that for all students, just to be part of the day is exciting and rewarding. Not every player is a star performer, but being on the team is important for every participant.
Ms. Munn was effuse in her praise of the volunteers and particularly her science faculty colleagues at the high school. Her husband, physics teacher Dana Munn, is the unofficial assistant fair coordinator. She thanked the sponsors of the event for making it possible for so many students to have this experience, and for underwriting part of the trip to the next level for those who move on.
Jerome Pikor and his potato launcher.
The next level
The Times asked Ms. Munn how she thought the Vineyard students will do in the regional and state competitions. She replied that some will do very well, but she pointed out that many off-Island high schools have outreach connections with colleges or research companies in their areas. There, some students' science fair projects may be an offshoot of a college professor's research project. "A part of me says that [the science fair project] ought to be solely the kid's own idea," she said. "But another part says that those kids [in the outreach programs] are getting the most amazing experience."
However, the Vineyard is an island and the MVRHS is what it is, and so perhaps Ms. Stelle can ride her worms all the way to the state championship.
Science Fair winner list
Following is a list of all science fair winners.
Grand Winners (Doctor James Porter Award): 1. Blake Stelle, The effect of temperature on the hatching rate of eisenia fetida cocoons; 2. Eliza Gowell, Study of natural pesticides on fruit flies; 3. Evan Kendall, Wind power and its future on Martha's Vineyard.
Bethany Pennington with her glue project.
Engineering Competition: 1. Caetlyn Hutchinson (The effects of changing the oil brand on the properties of biodiesel); 2. Michael Gately (Hydro-cution); 3. Hannah Van Osten (Light bulb efficiency: fluorescent versus incandescent).
Special Topic Awards: Most artistic display, Zach Coutinho (Strength of fishing line); Michael Wild Great Pond Science Fair award, Conor Lodge (How different ph levels affect the rate of photosynthesis in the plant elodea); Friends of Sengekontacket Award, Rachel Schubert (The effects of fluoridation on plant growth); Lagoon Pond Award, Lana Ho (Effects of pollution); Lloyd Henke Award, Blake Stelle (The effect of temperature on the hatching rate of eisenia fetida cocoons); Forensic Science Award, Julie Perry (Does handwriting match your personality?); Forensic Science Award, Cody Coutinho and Taylor Smith (How to cheat the game).
Water Award: 1. Conor Lodge (How different ph levels affect the rate of photosynthesis in the plant elodea); 2. Conor Boland (Invasive species and their effect on our environment); 3. Blake Stelle (The effect of temperature on the hatching rate of eisenia fetida cocoons); 4. Mark Reppert and Mac Hogan (Recreation of a tsunami).
Biology Category: 1. Eliza Gowell (Study of natural pesticides on fruit flies); 2. Matt Scott (28 days later, a study of daphnia life expectancy); 3. Katherine Monterosso (horse's digestive system, comparison of different grains' breakdown and risk for colic).
Chemistry Category: 1. Gus Hayes (Stretching the limit); 2. Micah Thanhauser (The effects of different metals on ceramic glazes); 3. Emily Carter (Island grown: is it really more nutritious?).
Physics category: 1. Kyle Colter (the science of soundproofing); 2. Laura Kimball (Rocking Newton's cradle); 3. Ryan Marinelli (What material is best in sand bags for flood prevention?).
Environmental Science: 1. Blake Stelle (The effect of temperature on the hatching rate of eisenia fetida cocoons); 2. Evan Kendall (Wind power and its future on Martha's Vineyard); 3. Lana Ho (Effects of pollution).
Underclassmen team projects: 1. Cody Coutinho, Taylor Smith (How to cheat the game); 2. Ellie Hehre, Kelly Felder (Color after-image in the retina); 3. Naomi Scott, Mariah Moreis (Comparison of up-Island and down-Island energy waste).