Science fair shows students' flair
Three local teens, buoyed by their success at the Tri-Valley Science & Engineering Fair, are preparing to take their science projects to the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair next month, where they will compete against students from 40 countries.
David Sprehn, a ninth-grade home-schooled student in Livermore, won the senior sweepstakes award last week for his mathematics project, "Analysis of the Snake Game," and Emily Sweeney and Sadie Tierney, both seniors at Amador Valley High School, won the team category for their project, "Memory and Emotion: Is There A Gender Bias?"
For their efforts, they will each receive an all-expense paid week at the Intel international fair, which will be held in San Jose May 6-11 at the San Jose Convention Center. It opens to the public on May 10.
The three sweepstakes winners were among 257 students who competed in the Tri-Valley fair this year. Now in its fifth year, this was the largest fair yet in numbers of students, projects and schools. Because of space constraints, more than 70 applications were turned down and the fair was expanded to include 20 more projects than last year, said fair director Karen Kiernan.
"The quality of this year’s fair was up substantially. The judges had a difficult time choosing the sweepstakes winners. There were at least a dozen nominations," she said. "The senior high participation was way up this year and we were thrilled."
Don Correll, who chairs the fair’s Scientific Review Committee, said the Tri-Valley fair is providing opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience in science that didn’t exist before.
"We’re seeing students who are being challenged with the science fair in a way that they are challenged with after-school sports and music. You wouldn’t just do sports and music in front of the chalkboard. You have to go out and participate," said Correll, head of the Lab’s Science & Technology Education Program. "These students are participating in science.
They are dong real science experiments. They see each other’s science experiments and the bar gets raised."
This was not Sprehn’s first trip to the awards circle. Three years ago he was the junior sweepstakes winner in his first year at the science fair. This year, Sprehn, 14, wrote a computer program to determine every possible way to win at a board game he invented.
"This year, I was really surprised," Sprehn said of winning the sweepstakes award. He plans to spend the next couple of weeks working hard to make his poster bigger and easier to read at the Intel international fair.
Sweeney, 18, and Tierney, 17, also plan to modify their written materials before going to the international fair next month. For their project, they showed the same video clip to 24 classes of freshmen and sophomore students. But the same 10 facts were presented differently to measure if students remembered more when the facts were told in an emotional story versus a non-emotional one.
"We were really excited to win the sweepstakes award. We weren’t expecting it," Sweeney said, adding that behavioral studies such as theirs haven’t won the sweepstakes award at past fairs.
The Laboratory is one of the fair’s organizing sponsors, along with the Blackhawk Museum, Chevron, Contra Costa Times, Tri Valley Business Council and Tri-Valley Community Fund.
As part of its sponsorship, the Laboratory contributes staff time, from fair director Karen Kiernan to the fair's administrative staff who come from the Engineering Directorate to the majority of scientific judges.
Chelle Clements of the Lab’s B Division, has been a volunteer judge since the fair began.
"I’m a huge math and science education promoter. The Lab has supported me over the years and I believe you have to give back," she said.
Steve Azevedo, who works in the Lab’s Electrical Engineering Technologies Division and is in his second year of judging, said he volunteers because he enjoys talking about science with the kids who participate in the fair.
"It’s fascinating to see what the kids come up with. I enjoy talking to them to encourage them to pursue careers in science," said Azevedo, who didn’t have a chance to participate in science fairs as a kid. "There is outstanding stuff here."
He has volunteered to judge at the Intel fair next month in San Jose.
"It’s nice it’s in the area. I’m really curious to see what kind of projects there will be."
Ann Heywood, who has volunteered to judge for four years, said participating in the fair is a highlight of her year.
"It’s really fun. It really makes you enthusiastic for future scientists," said Heywood, who works in NAI in the Russian program. "We’re seeing a lot more kids who are in senior high who have been participating in the fair since junior high. They are staying in science."
The projects at this year’s fair covered a wide range of science and engineering in 13 disciplines, and varied from the effects of caffeine on fruitflies to measurements of the pH levels in soil to the effects of crude oil on a crab’s respiratory rate.
There were two sweepstakes winners in the junior category: Elizabeth Hartwell of Our Savior Lutheran School, won for her project, "Do Crickets Hear Ultrasonic Sound?" and Chi Nguyen of Pine Valley Middle School, won for her project, "Horseplay With Horseradish." Nguyen also received the Discovery Young Scientist Challenge Award.
Both of the junior category winners will have the choice of a computer or an expense-paid week at NASA’s Space Academy in Huntsville, Ala.
The Tri-Valley Science & Engineering Fair is an affiliate of the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair. The judging standards for the projects are those established by the Intel fair.