Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

4Feb/09Off

Judging the Orange County Science Fair

Tell me - what's cooler than talking about science?

How about hanging out with a bunch of elementary school kids?

And what's cooler than that?

Hanging out with a bunch of elementary school kids talking about their own science at an elementary science fair!

See the beaver dam and lodge on her blue pond?

See the beaver dam and lodge on her blue pond?

Yes, on January 30th I was privileged to be one of six judges at the first annual Orange County Science Fair, in Hillsborough, North Carolina. I find it a little dismaying that the fair didn't exist before this year, considering that orange county has a generally highly regarded public school system and contains the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. However, the event turned out to be a great success thanks to the planning of Dr. Paul Medina, Science Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Training Initiative in Biomedical and Biological Sciences (TIBBS) at UNC, Tara Owens of Pathways Elementary, and Bruce Middleton, Math/Science Coordinator of Orange County Schools.

Beaver teeth!

Beaver teeth!

The first project I judged was not an actual experiment, but a report put together by an insanely adorable and equally shy little girl on the family of beavers that have made a home in her backyard pond. It took a little coaxing to get it out of her, but it turned out that she had done quite a bit of background research on beavers, telling me all about how they build dams and lodges, the purposes of each, their general habits, etc. In fact, she taught me something I didn't know about beavers! I initially asked her how beavers can chew so many trees without their teeth wearing down (knowing as I do that all rodents have continuously growing teeth ((rodent tooth trivia - if laboratory mice aren't given appropriate food to chew on, their teeth can occlude their mouths leading to starvation)) ), to which she replied (paraphrased) "they have a hard coating on their teeth that protects them - that's why their teeth are orange."

I never knew why beavers had orange teeth!

Do seeds germinate best in very wet, wet, moist, or dry conditions? (result: moist)

Do seeds germinate best in very wet, wet, moist, or dry conditions? (result: moist)

Of course, the fair had your obligatory volcanoes (two of them) and a balloon blown up on a soda bottle with baking soda and vinegar (remember the fun of baking soda and vinegar?). However, in a sign of the times, though I'm not sure what this sign means, neither the volcanoes or the balloon involved a live demonstration with baking soda or vinegar. Apparently, the kids didn't want to make a mess at school and their parents didn't want to make a mess at home in preparation. C'mon! Messy science is FUN!

In another display of the fact that I am getting old, two separate projects dealt with the effects of playing video games on the body (blood pressure and pulse). Not that I didn't play tons of video games in my childhood - but there were certainly no science projects dealing with the effects of 8-bit Mario Brother's on the body. The results: different games had different effects on different people. I was particularly interested in the study dealing with the effects of playing "Guitar Hero" - I'm a "Rockband" and "Guitar Hero" fanatic!

What is the optimum amount of baking powder for my cake?

What is the optimum amount of baking powder for my cake?

Several different studies asked how various conditions affect plant germination or growth. One of the more entertaining studies asked the question "Do plants grow better when fed water or Dr. Pepper?" The results were as expected.

Another study I found particularly entertaining (and well designed) asked the question, "Can Predator Decoys Change the Feeding Patterns of Birds?" The student had a fake owl and a fake cat, which were used to test the hypothesis at a bird feeder. She controlled the experiment and measured bird numbers. As you might expect, the birds were initially deterred by the decoys, but became acclimated within a couple of days. However, the data I found most telling were the final large pictures she had on her poster, which showed the fake owl and cat perched in a tree, staring at a bird feeder full of birds. It was quite hilarious! (Note: I did not actually judge this project due to number assignments).

The winner took the prize by testing various salt concentrations on plant growth under well-controlled conditions. The fair was judged by originality, creativity, and how "scientific" each project was set up. That being said, the main goal was not to judge these kids but to simply encourage their own excitement and inspire them to continue with scientific thinking.

Suchin Gururangan: Inflammation and Cancer Inhibiting Tumor Progression Through the Cyclo-Oxygenase 2 Pathway

Suchin Gururangan: Inflammation and Cancer Inhibiting Tumor Progression Through the Cyclo-Oxygenase 2 Pathway

After the elementary judging, two local high school students from East Chapel Hill High gave more serious presentations on work they have done in the Launch into Education about Pharmacology (LEAP) program at Duke. Aaron Krolik presented "Assessing the neuroprotective attributes of nicotine and or caffeine against Parkinson's disease" (using zebrafish), while Suchin Gururangan presented, "Inflammation and Cancer Inhibiting Tumor Progression Through the Cyclo-Oxygenase 2 Pathway." Yeah - that's right - high schoolers!

Tornado in a bottle!

Tornado in a bottle!

Of them I have to say WOW!! These kids were not just bright - they were brilliant. The posters they presented were far better than many graduate student poster presentations I've seen. Judging between the two was nigh impossible, though Aaron ended up winning and will proceed to a regional competition. Both of them had extensive knowledge of all the surrounding literature (seriously, how many of us could read and understand all the literature around a particular scientific study at age 16/17?).  These kids are definitely going places if they stick with it!

All in all, I found the fair highly enjoyable! It sounds cliched but it was truly great to witness their eyes lighting up at the opportunity to explain what they've learned. That feeling is why I love science so much - which makes it all the more satisfying to see little ones beginning on the same intellectual journey.

The winners:
Elementary: all students are from Pathways

  • 1st: Daniel Mulligan - 5th grader - "Effect of Salt on Plant Germination and Growth"
  • 2nd: Mia Frenduto - 5th grader - "When are Birds More Active Feeders?"
  • 3rd: Caroline Wilson - 5th grader - "Can Predator Decoys Change the Feeding Habits of Birds?"
  • 4th: Meghan O'Shaughnessy and Ellie Wimberly - 5th graders - "Burn Baby Burn"
  • 5th: Jace Jordan Cornell - 5th grader - "How Smoke and Carbon Dioxide Affect Plants"
  • 6th: Brooke Smith - 5th grader - "Growth of Sunflower Seeds in Different Liquids"

High School: both from East Chapel Hill High

  • 1st: Aaron Krolik - "Assessing the neuroprotective attributes of nicotine and or caffeine against Parkinson's disease"
  • 2nd: Suchin Gururangan - "Inflammation and Cancer Inhibiting Tumor Progression Through the Cyclo-Oxygenase 2 Pathway"

If any of you are interested in science outreach, I highly recommend you contact your local elementary and find out whether they have similar programs! And if you live in North Carolina, contact Dr. Paul Medina and get involved next year.

Prizes for the winners were donated bythe  NC Museum of Life and Science, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, and Kidzu Children’s Museum. Food and drinks for the judges were donated by Panera Bread and Starbucks Coffee (and it was tasty!).

Judges Lonna Mollison, Kara Keedy, Daniel Brown (Me), Paul Medina, James Fuller, Lisa Mangiamele, and Brante Sampey

Judges Lonna Mollison, Kara Keedy, Daniel Brown (Me), Paul Medina, James Fuller, Lisa Mangiamele, and Brante Sampey

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  1. That looks like tons of fun. I’m glad the traditional volcano still has a presence!


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