Cotter seventh grader John Besek convinced his family to eat spoonfuls of hot sauce — for science.
by BEN MCLEOD
The John Nett Athletic Center was a temple of science on the morning of Wednesday, January 31, as seventh and eighth grade students displayed their research and conclusions for the Cotter Middle School Science Fair. Young scientists learned how to form hypotheses, plan and conduct experiments, and compile and present their results as coherent research.
One of the side benefits of the science fair is engaging students who may not always have academic focus in other fields. By allowing them to choose their own subjects, said Tammy Drazkowski, Cotter's project science director, the kids are encouraged to learn and apply scientific rigor and focus onto topics that interest them. Sports, video games, smart phones, and the outdoors were popular fields; if a student has trouble focusing in math or history, spending three months learning how to study and write about baseball or bow hunting or music provides a set of study skills that are applicable to the rest of their academic careers. "One thing I always make sure when starting, is that they find a subject of interest," said Drazkowski. "Then the research is interesting."
Other students were motivated by a natural curiosity about the world around them. Eighth grader Grace Menke studied antibiotic resistance; "I read a lot about it in the newspaper, [and] my mom used to be a veterinarian and some weekends I'd go help out, and they use antibiotics so it sparked my curiosity." Seventh grader Andrew Troke recently moved into a new house with flower beds along the side of the home, and was considering growing plants in the spring. So he spent the first part of his winter studying the application of different kinds of fertilizer. He's not necessarily an aspiring biologist or farmer: "Just a hobby I might want to do. I thought it was kinda cool." Seventh grader Madison Beck planted mustard greens and tried watering them with water from multiple sources. She assumed the water from a creek that runs near her home would work best but learned that the city tap water may be better. "I think the reason [the creek water] didn't do so well is because of the road salt that runs into the creek." A crucial part of the scientific process is honesty; if the data doesn't support a favorite hypothesis, the researcher doesn't get to make excuses, which is how learning works. If research proves a theory incorrect, then the researcher must try to figure out why.
While Cotter made it's facilities available to the students, some research required specialized equipment or expertise. "I had one girl who worked with someone from the National Geological Society," said Drazkowski, "because she needed nitrates measured in water samples. She was using algae to see if different chemicals can be naturally taken out of the water."
Another big benefit of science projects is family involvement. Drazkowski explained, "A lot of kids will work with their parents, or find out different things with their parents, which I love. They'll go to work with their parents and learn to use new machines. I have one boy who did lead levels in toys, and went with his dad and they learned all this stuff ... and they didn't find any lead in any of the toys, which is a good thing! It just gets them more interested, especially at this age, and the parents love it and it gets them a little closer."
Some families were luckier than others. Seventh grader John Besek studied the best ways to soothe the mouth after eating spicy foods. "I had the test subjects eat spoonfuls of Frank's RedHot [hot sauce.] I made my family, parents, aunt, two cousins and both brothers [participate]," he said with a small mischievous smile. Ian Olcott used the science fair to build a catapult, and Sal Piscitiello made a vortex cannon.
Other projects had very clear applications in the wider world outside of middle school. Eighth grader Olivia Blumers, who plans to go into law enforcement, wanted to know who could recall more detail from a crime scene, men or women. "When I was researching [the subject] I saw a test on some cops; if they participated in [recent] physical activity they had a harder time with memory." She used four boys and four girls, asking two of each to run for a minute before they tried to recall details from a simulated crime scene. Eight grader Abagail Briggs tested cellphone use on human reflexes, across a spectrum of volunteers. "There wasn't a single [test subject] who wasn't affected."
Drazkowski said that many of the judges, local residents with STEM careers or backgrounds, volunteer year after year. This year, one of the volunteer judges was Justin Franz, sporting a tie featuring the periodic table of elements. Franz is a senior at Cotter who has long been involved with the school's science project program, including a trip to the International Science Fair in 2016. "I've always wanted to be a judge at a science fair. It's nice to be on this side," Franz admitted. In 2016, when he was in tenth grade, he co-authored a paper published in the Journal of Chemical Education, "A Biphastic Ligand Exchange Reaction on CdSe Nanoparticles," with WSU's Dr. Jennifer Zemke, associate professor of chemistry. "That project had probably 1,000 hours easily in the lab," he admitted. The Cotter science fair put him on a track that has led him to work with cutting edge materials for solar panel efficiency. It's a remarkably complex subject but Franz was quite comfortable and enthusiastic when discussing his work. "The current silicon solar panels are about 14 percent efficient, with a theoretical maximum of 35 percent." The particles that he is studying have a maximum efficiency of 70 percent. Not only are Cotter students and their families benefiting from the science fair, these projects could lead to potential benefits for the entire planet.
From a perspective of academics alone, science fairs can open up students to possible future careers or lifelong interests. Nadia Dieterman, a music fan, wanted to learn about the effect of music on mood. And now, in seventh grade, she is thinking about where the study may lead her. "I want to go into psychology [and possibly] be a school counsellor, help kids going through with problems, help people with their mental health."
This year, 18 Cotter students will be moving on to the Regional science fair at St. Mary's on Friday, February 23.