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Alaska state science fair guides students to tackling real-world problems

Devin Kelly
Chien-Lu Ping talks with Ambrosia Woodgate and Alyssa Deacon about their project at the 2014 Alaska State Science & Engineering Fair at East High School on Saturday, March 22, 2014. The McGrath, AK students including Dakota Magnosun, not shown, worked on the project titled "The Best Material to Absorb Oil". Finalist from the Alaska fair will attend the International science fair in Los Angeles, CA. 140322
Bob Hallinen
Berenger MarcAurele, a third grader at Aquarian Charter School, sits under the table below his science project reading a graphic novel at the 2014 Alaska State Science & Engineering Fair at East High School on Saturday, March 22, 2014. MarcAurele's project is titled "How do Ocean Waves Form and Break on Shore". Finalist from the Alaska fair will attend the International science fair in Los Angeles, CA. 140322
Bob Hallinen

Kneeling down, Chance Duckworth gave the round table before him a vigorous shake.

As the table wobbled, red pens attached to metal wires and wooden boards moved back on forth on pieces of white paper. Faint squiggles measured the amplitude of his mini-earthquake.

For the 59th annual Alaska State Science and Engineering Fair on Saturday, Duckworth, 11, built a pair of homemade seismographs to demonstrate how earthquakes are recorded.

"I like geology, and just the concept of earthquakes," said Duckworth, a sixth-grader at Trailside Elementary, a few days before the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Alaska earthquake.

From Duckworth's seismographs, to a robot that can solve a Rubix cube, to the chemistry of dyeing an Easter egg, the 386 projects created by more than 440 students from 69 different schools across Alaska ran the gamut of scientific inquiry.

Syreeta Southwould, 11, decided to do a project on "vampire power," or the power electrical devices use up when they are switched off or in standby mode. She found that in general, only small amounts of power are used when an item is in standby mode, though it uses more power to keep an Apple iPhone plugged in on standby for 16 hours than to use it for 8 hours.

She also discovered her family can save money by unplugging the television when they leave the house -- something they plan to start doing, said Southwould, a sixth-grader at Aquarian Charter School in Anchorage.

As students connected their projects to the real world, some tied research to specific community issues.

Dan Distor, 14, and Ivan Fancyboy, 18, wanted to explore how biannual discharges from the sewage lagoon in Pilot Station into the Yukon River were affecting the quality of the river water. The lagoon is located within 100 meters to 500 meters of homes and buildings in Pilot Station.

The Pilot Station School students guessed that "downstream" water, which receives the sewage discharges, would have more contaminants, dissolved solids and a higher pH value than the "upstream" water, which does not receive the discharges.

After conducting the experiment -- which involved driving four-wheelers to the river to collect samples -- the duo confirmed their contamination hypothesis was right, and plan to present the findings to Pilot Station's village council.

The eight students from Pilot Station School made up about half of the total contingent from the Lower Yukon School District. Six years ago, Distor's mom, Wilma Distor, Pilot Station's only science and math teacher for grades 7-12, organized Pilot Station's first school science fair. She's brought students to the state science fair every year since.

"I really believe that inquiry and process is the one thing students should learn," said Distor, who grew up in the Philippines and coordinated science fairs while teaching in Texas. Each Friday, she makes a point of only doing experiments in class.

"For me, science is not complete science without these science projects."

Fourteen-year-old Alex Schuerch's also got the idea for his project from an issue in a rural Alaska community. His dad, Tim Schuerch, works in Kotzebue, and relayed firsthand observations of the corrosion of steel structures in the acidic Arctic tundra environment.

He took Alex, an eighth-grader at Central Middle School, to the BP Asset Integrity and Corrosion Lab at UAA, which offered advice and equipment. Alex's project shows that using zinc to insulate steel can decrease the amount of corrosion and rust.

"I know just from what I do in Kotzebue, this is really useful," said Tim Schuerch, who is president of the Maniilaq Association, the regional health and social-service non-profit for the Kotzebue area. . No studies exist that show the effect of the tundra on steel, he said.

This summer, Alex Schuerch said he plans to head out to the tundra and repeat the project in the actual environment.

While pleased with the overall turnout this year, organizers were quick to note a general trend of a lack of involvement among high school students.

Of the 386 projects, only 35 were created by high schoolers, which organizers chalked up to little advertising and busy schedules. The numbers for Anchorage School District high schools were particularly low -- only about five projects in the 2014 fair.

"It's extremely frustrating," said Texas Gail Raymond, director of the science fair and the former science coordinator for the Anchorage School District.

In a signal of efforts to increase the involvement of Anchorage high school students, the science fair is adding a 17-year-old science fair veteran, Stephen Kranich, to its board of directors.

Kranich graduated from West High in the fall and immediately jumped to classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His psychology-focused projects won first-place ribbons in 2012 and 2013 and consecutive bids to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which gives students a chance to compete for more than $4 million in awards and scholarships.

Jana Lage, chair of marketing and special awards for the fair, said the board is "tasking him with getting excitement back into science with the youngsters." But Kranich said it goes beyond just the excitement level.

"There's absolutely no advertising whatsoever through ASD," he said, noting that most of the high school students participate through special classes that encourage science fair entries. "Nobody knows it exists. That's what I want to try and change."

He said that in the next year, he hopes to talk to principals, make posters and visit classrooms to get the word out.

"It instills a love of science," Kranich said, who credited his status as a double-major in psychology and economics to his years of involvement in the science fair.

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.

 


By DEVIN KELLY
dkelly@adn.com