Science champs

Young scientists focus their research on real-world problems

Raymond Gilmartin (at white board) took home the top prize at this year’s Broadcom MASTERS for his project investigating car spoilers. SSP

Connecting to the Internet used to be a frustrating challenge for David Li. The wireless router in his family’s Commack, N.Y., home just didn’t have a strong enough signal.

“My transmitting antenna was positioned in the basement,” explains David, 14. “Whenever I used my computer upstairs, I was experiencing really bad reception.”

Rather than tote his computer downstairs, David figured out how to bring more of the wireless signal upstairs. For his 8th-grade science fair project at Commack Middle School, he built and tested a reflector that focused the router’s radio waves.

David’s invention got him onto the Internet — and into the finals of the Broadcom MASTERS competition. He was one of 30 finalists, all between the ages of 12 and 15, who recently spent several days in Washington, D.C., for the competition’s final round. At stake: free iPads and thousands of dollars in prizes, including a $25,000 top award from the founder of Broadcom, a company that makes microchips for wireless devices.

How they got there

The Broadcom MASTERS is open to the top 10 percent of 6th-, 7th– and 8th-graders who have already competed in state and regional science fairs. If nominated to compete, students must apply to the competition’s organizer, Society for Science & the Public, or SSP, which also publishes Science News for Kids. The application includes specific questions about each student’s project as well as general questions about science, technology, engineering and math.

This year, the competition began in late September with the 30 finalists — decked out in their nicest clothes — gathered in the cafeteria of the National Geographic Society. One by one, over three hours, the finalists described their projects to the visiting public.

During the earlier science fairs, these finalists were judged on their projects. But Broadcom MASTERS is not a science fair — at least not in the conventional sense. Here, the projects counted for only one-quarter of the students’ scores. The rest of their scores depended on how they performed in team competitions held over the next few days.

Still, this first event was the only part of the competition that allowed the finalists to shine as individuals. So, with big smiles, and more than a little patience, the competitors explained their research to their peers, the public and a panel of judges.

Focused approach

David displayed the special wood-and-metal reflector he had built in the shape of a parabola. Its broad, U-shaped form gave the reflector a special property, David explained. If you point light, sound or radio waves at a parabola, they will bounce to one point, called the focal point. It’s how a satellite dish collects and focuses TV signals beamed to Earth from communications satellites in orbit.

Luckily for David, a parabola works in reverse, too. If you place, say, a light bulb at the focal point, the parabola projects the light in a straight beam. That’s how the reflector in a flashlight works.

David thought he could use a parabola to direct the radio waves from his basement wireless router toward his computer upstairs. First, he built the reflector and then tested it in a field at his school. He experimented by placing the wireless antenna at three different distances from the reflector: at the focal point; halfway between the focal point and the parabola; and twice as far from the parabola as the focal point. David finally used his laptop to test how each position affected the wireless signal’s strength at different spots in the field.

Right back at you! David Li shows off the parabolic reflector that got him onto the Internet — and into the Broadcom MASTERS. SSP

Placing the antenna at the focal point strengthened the signal directly in front of the reflector, David discovered. But moving the antenna to either of his two other experimental points boosted the wireless signal all the way around, he learned. So that’s how David now positions his reflector at home when connecting to the Internet.

What interests you?

One of the hardest things about any science fair project is coming up with an idea, says

Stephanie Lemnios. She manages the Broadcom MASTERS program for SSP. Her advice: “Pick something that you’re interested in.” If you do, she observes, “you will be curious to learn more.” It sounds so simple, “but it really seems to be successful.”

That approach certainly worked for Paige Gentry. The 13-year-old middle school student grew interested in rabies after spotting an infected skunk while tending the chickens on her family’s ranch in San Angelo, Texas.

Paige Gentry, left, explains how she discovered a skunk’s food preferences could help fight deadly rabies. SSP

“One night I hopped the fence to check on them and there was a skunk just barely walking — crawling,” Paige says. “It was rabid.”

A bite from an infected animal can spread deadly rabies to humans or farm animals. So Paige contacted the state health department. She soon learned that wild animals can be vaccinated against rabies. Unlike children receiving the chicken pox, measles or other vaccinations, wild animals don’t get a needle jab. Instead, health officials scatter an edible vaccine coated in fish oil.

Many critters consider the vaccines a delicious treat — but not skunks, Paige learned. She wondered: Could it be that the taste of fish just didn’t appeal to skunks? Paige came up with a way to find out. She put out bowls of deer meat, chicken and fish. None contained any vaccine — Paige just wanted to discover what skunks liked best. Whenever an animal visited the bowls of bait, a camera automatically took its picture.

“There were opossums and I think there were a few bobcats,” Paige says. “And a lot of raccoons. A lot!”

Skunks came, too. And Paige’s experiment suggested they clearly preferred chicken. Now, she says, scientists are developing a chicken-flavored vaccine, just for skunks.

“That is a great example of a project which was very much student-driven,” says Bill Wallace, a science teacher at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C. He headed this year’s panel of judges at the competition.

Spoiler alert!

Those judges like to see research triggered by a student’s personal interests, and not just something taken from a website or suggested by an adult. “For example, a kid could take a look around in his neighborhood,” Wallace says. “That student might ponder: ‘There’s a pond: Does the life around it change in any way through the year?’”

A survey of other Broadcom finalists revealed just how many were inspired by their life experiences. For Will Monts, 15, the sailboat pattern on his yellow tie said it all. The 8th-grader at Cross Schools in Bluffton, S.C., has been sailing for much of his life. Not surprisingly, his project evaluated how well different shapes of sail caught the wind. Meanwhile, Anna Lou, 12, of Oxford Academy in Cypress, Calif., taught a computer to play the board game Blokus. Her inspiration? Anna couldn’t beat her uncle at the game, so she programmed a computer that could.

Anna Lou, left, and Maria Elena Grimmett take a break during the Broadcom MASTERS. The finals gave competitors a chance to shine — and make some new friends. SSP

For Raymond Gilmartin, 14, a love for cars helped him qualify. For his science project, the 8th-grader from South Pasadena Middle School in South Pasadena, Calif., tested how different kinds of spoilers could reduce a car’s wind resistance and increase its fuel efficiency. Raymond’s hard work won him the grand prize.

Try, try again

Many, if not all, finalists overcame some obstacles before finding success with their projects. Take, for example, Jessika Baral, 13. She became interested in vision because she, like everyone else in her family, wears glasses. So while a student at Hopkins Junior High School in Fremont, Calif., Jessika came up with a way for people to exercise their vision.

In particular, she wanted to improve people’s peripheral vision — what appears at the edges of your field of view while staring straight ahead. Her first several experiments failed. She first tried to get people to exercise and strengthen their eyes by focusing on a marble rolling around in a tube. But by the time someone was in place and ready, the marble was already out of sight. Then she tried rope lights, or a long, narrow plastic tube filled with LED lights. The lights were too bright, though, and Jessika couldn’t control how and when individual LEDs lit up.

Rather than be discouraged, Jessika turned to another type of LED. She also developed and programmed a controller — essentially a little computer — that let her turn on and off the lights in whatever order she chose.

The finished device is a flat, circular piece of foam. A half-moon cutout lets users hold it against their forehead. The programmable LEDs ring the edge. As those lights blink on and off at the periphery of the wearer’s field of vision, they give the eyes a workout.

Glasses off, a smiling Jessika Baral demonstrates how her device, ringed with programmable LEDs, gives the wearer’s peripheral vision a real workout. SSP

“Finally,” Jessika says proudly, “it works perfect.” Even though Jessika won the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation, one of the competition’s top prizes, she’s still busy tinkering. Since the foam breaks easily, she’s looking for a stronger material.

What comes next?

Answering a question or solving a problem may be enough for many young researchers. Wallace says judges like to see students think beyond their initial conclusions and explore additional questions they might raise.

Maria Elena Grimmett, 13, did just that. For three years in a row, her science-fair research has focused on water pollution. Her Jupiter, Fla., family gets its drinking water from a well. Naturally occurring chemicals called tannins stain the water brown. It’s harmless, but looks yucky. “My groundwater’s always been brown,” Maria Elena says. “So I wondered, how do I fix that problem?”

She learned how materials called resins can clean tannins from well water. The resins work by chemically attracting the pollutants. Which resins would work best for her family’s water? Maria Elena turned that question into her 6th-grade science fair project. “There’s no real way to know other than testing it,” she explains.

Later, Maria Elena became interested in antibiotics, or drugs that kill bacteria that can cause disease. Many farmers feed antibiotics to healthy livestock; it can boost the animals’ growth. Unfortunately, some of those antibiotics wind up in the waste produced by the animals. From there, the drugs can wash into streams and rivers — and start causing problems. Germs overexposed to an antibiotic in the environment can over time become resistant to the drug. When that occurs, the drug will no longer kill the targeted germ.

While a 7th-grade student at The Weiss School in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Maria Elena focused on sulfamethazine (SUL fah METH a ZEEN), the antibiotic most commonly given to animals. She tested and confirmed the ability of resins to remove this antibiotic from water — a project that propelled her into the Broadcom finals. Maria Elena also submitted what she had learned to a scientific journal. The journal agreed to publish her findings. That means scientists everywhere will soon be getting the scoop on this middle-school scientist’s work.

Meanwhile, this year, while in 8th grade, Maria Elena again qualified for the Broadcom finals. Her new project examined how much sulfamethazine the resins can remove from water.

“Be courageous. Don’t be afraid to try something out,” Wallace says. “We’re not looking for the greatest engineering project. We’re not looking for the cure for cancer. We’re looking for the ability of a kid to think through a project.”

Power Words

focal point The point where light, sound or radio waves meet when they bounce off of a parabola.

groundwater Water that collects underground in rocks and soil. It can be tapped as a source of drinking water.

LED (light-emitting diode) A semiconductor device that produces light.

parabola A broad U shape, where each point on the curve lies the same distance from the focal point and a line. A parabola also may be formed by cutting a slice through a three-dimensional cone, parallel to one of the sides of the cone.

peripheral vision What appears at the edges of your field of view while staring straight ahead.

router A device that relays the Internet signal coming from a modem, either through wires or wirelessly, to devices such as computers or tablets.

resin Plastic-like compounds made naturally by some plants or synthetically.

spoiler A winglike structure used on vehicles to direct the flow of air. A spoiler can reduce the friction, called drag, associated with air.

tannin Naturally occurring chemicals found in bark and other plant tissues that can turn groundwater brown.

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