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Science fair experiments range from crime to coho

Posted: March 11, 2012 - 12:06am
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High school students set up their displays for the Science Fair at Thunder Mountain High School on Friday.  Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
High school students set up their displays for the Science Fair at Thunder Mountain High School on Friday.

Science isn’t always just lab work. Sometimes, it’s firing felt balls out of cannon in a school gymnasium, or looking for blood on the floor, or collecting blue mussels in Juneau’s harbors.

Just ask the middle and high school students who competed in the Southeast Alaska Regional Science Fair at Thunder Mountain High School this weekend.

TMHS freshman Quinn White, 15, one of about 85 kids from five area high schools who participated in the fair, built an air cannon with two different barrel lengths to test which one would shoot the ball farther. The 3-foot barrel trumped the 6-foot barrel, the aspiring quantum mechanic/theoretical physicist said.

“My hypothesis was proved wrong, and I didn’t really expect that, of course,” White said. “It actually went longer than the longer barrel. I think that’s because of the friction caused by the ball.”

Two of White’s classmates, Lauren Rabago, 14, and Iris Light, 15, opted for crime-and-punishment-oriented experiments to show off to the judges, who on Saturday picked eight to 10 finalists vying to compete in the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair to be held in Pittsburgh in May. The Intel judges were to whittle that number down to a select few on Sunday, and only those students will advance to Pittsburgh.

Rabago, whose favorite TV show is “Criminal Minds,” mixed Luminol (the chemical that exhibits a cool blue glow that crime scene investigators use to detect blood) with copper sulfate and sodium perborate in different water temperatures to find out how to best make the hidden red evidence pop. She used the copper sulfate to simulate blood.

“I changed the temperature of water that I mixed in with copper sulfate, Luminol and perborate mix to see if that changes the glow of the Luminol so that you could tell if blood was there or not,” she said.

The result?

“I learned that when you decrease the temperature of the water, the brightness increases, (which means) that you should use colder water when mixing with Luminol to spray on the blooded area,” she said.

In a similar vein, Light sought to discover if there’s any truth to the lunar effect, which stipulates a connection between the phases of the moon and deviant criminal behavior. Her science experiment, which examined Alaska State Trooper data from Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, showed there was not more crime on a full moon, as expected in her hypothesis.

“The full moon wasn’t the most criminal, it was the waning crescent,” Light said, noting she examined data for four categories: DUI, domestic assault, armed robbery and murder.

Lawrence Schaufler, the fair director, said one of most fun aspects of the fair is for young science students to ask practical questions about things in everyday life and use the scientific method to explore their curiosity.

“It’s important that everybody has a basic level of understanding of science, and that’s what we’re trying to promote here,” he said. “It’s the little interesting things that you think about. Kids decide, ‘Hey! I want to know the answer to that,’ and that’s really important because those kids get some peek into what the scientific method is about, and that they learn the process.”

Some other playful projects entered in the competition looked at how absorbent six cereals are compared to each other; how different beverages affect tooth decay; how arc affects the shooting percentage of a basketball; how music affects heart rate; and how different types of chocolate react to heat.

On a more deadpan note, every project in the fair required at least three “lab logs” demonstrating trials and data entry, an abstract, introduction, background paper and bibliography. For most of the contestants, it’s an accumulation of months of work from the beginning of the school year.

Some of the projects had a distinct Juneau feel, like that of TMHS sophomores Mariell Mendoza, 15, and Tori Talley, 16, who teamed up for a project this year after both winning solo awards last year. They collected about 80 blue mussels from both Douglas and Auke Bay harbors to find out which ones survived the longest in sea water buckets kept in their garage, away from their substrate location.

“We decided to pick this topic because for at least the past three years — ever since we’ve been here — we’ve lived in a very marine-oriented community, and we went on field trips, like going to the beaches or going to NOAA and exploring, and one thing that’s very abundant is blue mussels, but nobody ever really talks about them because they’re so abundant. And we are also very concerned about our environmental action and how toxic different harbors are,” Talley said.

For 23 days, they tracked how many mussels died, and they found that Auke Bay Harbor mussels survived longer than those from Douglas Harbor.

“Our hypothesis was that there would be no effect, and so it was really cool to see that it did have a huge affect where they were, so the Auke Bay mussels are much healthier than the Douglas mussels,” Talley said.

Other marine/Juneau-related projects included how different pH levels in sea water affect the mortality rate of sea urchins; the effects of starvation on the metabolic rates of small crustaceans; and how restoration affects juvenile coho salmon in Juneau creeks.

Quinn, Rabago, Light, Mendoza and Talley all took time out of their day Friday to discuss their projects with the Empire before the other schools arrived at Thunder Mountain High School. High school students from Skagway, Petersburg and Angoon participated, as did Juneau-Douglas High School.

Students set up their booths Friday afternoon and practiced interviewing each other before they were each interviewed by about four of the 75 INTEL judges on Saturday.

But that’s not the only prize they could win. More than 30 local and state organizations — from the University of Alaska Southeast to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to the Juneau Audubon Society — gave out scholarship money, cash prizes and gift certificates. Thirty-five special award judges interviewed the students for those prizes, which were given out Saturday evening at UAS during an award ceremony.

Schaufler estimates about $12,000 in scholarship money and cash prizes were doled out last year.

He said a complete list of the winners and the finalists who will go on to compete in Pittsburgh will be made available at a later date.

The Southeast Alaska Regional Science Fair is one of two regional competitions held in Alaska. The other one, for Interior Alaska, will be held later in March in Anchorage, Schaufler said.

The fair for the Southeast was first held in the Mendenhall Mall in 1993 with all of 10 projects. This year, there were more than 65 mentors and mentoring institutions and companies; 73 official fair judges; 25 organizing committee members; 35 special award judges and 20 award presenters; and 32 local award sponsoring companies and organizations.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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