Fair draws out the scientists in the students

Aerodynamics, obesity and the best wood for canoes are among projects

Posted: Monday, January 17, 2005

John Correa and Taylor Dalton, sixth-graders at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, wondered which kind of paper airplane would fly the farthest.

Nick Parker, a seventh-grader, wanted to know if Juneau elementary students have a higher rate of obesity than the nation's children as a whole.

Those students and about 150 others showed their results in the Cedar House science fair Friday. The event also included students who co-participated in a small science fair on Native topics.

Bonita Nelson, a scientist at the federal Auke Bay marine lab, was one of the judges.

"You did many trials of the same plane?" she quizzed Correa and Dalton, whose five types of paper airplanes were suspended by string from a yardstick at their table in the commons. "Excellent idea. Those are called replicates. Tell me more."

"We each flew every plane twice," Taylor said. "I went first and he went second."

"So you were making sure those measurements were accurate," Nelson said, teasing out the scientific purpose.

Nick, the enterprising student interested in obesity, discovered that the height and weight of each elementary student, divorced from their names, is public information.

He collected the data from school nurses and used it to calculate the body mass index for students. He broke out the information by school, sex and whether the school is eligible for federal anti-poverty funds.

Nick didn't name the schools because, he explained, they didn't want to be counted as an obese school.

Nick used the Web site of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its definition of obesity and for national statistics. He also talked to a local doctor and examined a state report on obesity among Anchorage schoolchildren.

Results: About 26 percent of the 2,014 students whose data he examined were obese, compared to a national children's rate of 16 percent. Boys were more likely than girls to be obese. Schools with antipoverty funds had slightly higher obesity rates than other schools.

His study, which took dozens of hours to compile, will "give information that actually can be used," Nick said. "People can see that obesity is a problem and it can be changed."

Students started on their projects in November, said Topaz Shryock, a science and math teacher in Cedar House. They made the required tables, graphs and posters in school, and did the research at home, she said.

The value of science fairs is that students are motivated to work on projects that are their own ideas, Shryock said.

Sixth-graders Daffodil Alinson and Maya Rieselbach examined what wood is best for building canoes. Their project was enrolled in the main science fair and the Native fair.

Maya said they got the idea from a story her father told her about a canoe that flipped because it was too light, and a canoe that sank because it absorbed too much water. But red cedar was just right.

The children talked to Native carver Doug Chilton and to scientists, and tested red cedar, yellow cedar, Western cedar, spruce, hemlock and pine for absorption and density.

"Red cedar absorbed the least amount of water," Daffodil said.

"And it was the densest," Maya added.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.

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