Scientists serve as more than observers at JDHS student fair

Posted: Friday, February 11, 2005

When students stand beside their cardboard panels at a science fair next month, you'll see charts, graphs, photos, and the inevitable trays of plants.

You won't see the roughly 100 local scientists who have mentored the students, but they also shaped the event.

The Southeast Alaska Regional Science Fair will be held March 4 and 5. Many of the approximately 120 students who participate are mandated to do so by Juneau-Douglas High School science teacher Jonathan Smith. He also requires them to search out a mentor, an expert who can guide them.

"To me, it's the most valuable piece of the fair," Smith said, because students see how science is done.

"The science the students often end up doing is a direct offshoot of what these people are doing in the community," Smith said.

Some students don't know what project they want to do. Others have a firm but impractical idea. Mentors guide them toward what is possible in the time frame, said Ed Buyarski, a master gardener who has mentored students for several years.

Most students work on their project periodically over two to three months, but some ambitious students use the previous summer to conduct outdoor experiments. That's a far cry from the years that scientists spend on a piece of research.

"What the mentors can do mostly is simplify their experiment in a way that can be done at a high school level," said Michael S. Stekoll, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Buyarski said, "I try to push them toward coming up with a question. ... 'How does this affect that?' "

Pat Harris, a zoologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, asks students about their hobbies, what sports they like, what pets they have.

"I think it's important to make it relevant to their lives, their family lives and their community," she said. "Sometimes they have great, grandiose ideas. We don't have a spaceship lab here."

But Juneau does have a superb natural environment and scientific labs at the university and state and federal agencies.

Last year Rose Stanley, now a sophomore, turned to Harris as a mentor. Stanley was interested in marine biology, but it was Harris who pointed out that hormones used by humans turn up in sewage and could affect blue mussels.

"I went into the project not knowing anything," said Stanley. Harris "directed me to research that educated me about blue mussels. ... It would take a lot of effort on my part to get access to those sources and know what to look for."

Science Fair

Displays open to the public

When: 4:30 to 9 p.m. Friday, March 4, and from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, March 5.

Where: Marie Drake gym.

Harris's assistance to students has ranged from organizing a kayak trip to Cascade Point to using equipment at the NMFS Auke Bay lab. She's glued down mussels in a wet lab so they wouldn't float away.

Two years ago, UAS associate professor of geology Cathy Connor helped Lisa Imamura and Anne Wilcock narrow their topic to studying erosion on the mineral augite. The students set up the experiments in their homes and worked independently of Connor, Imamura said.

"But when it came to measuring, we needed a really precise balance," Imamura said.

Connor let them use instruments at a lab. She also provided them with scientific literature on their topic.

There's a fine line for mentors between advising students and doing the work themselves. Mentors are allowed to help students design the experiments, conduct them and analyze the data.

"Oftentimes, a relationship is established where students are working at (the mentors') workplace, using their equipment," Smith said.

Stekoll said mentors ideally should get students to do their own thinking and design their own experiments, and should explain the limitations of their experiments.

The fair's judges scrutinize projects for work that is beyond a student's ability. If students present an elaborate display of data but can't answer questions about it, that's a giveaway that they received too much help.

Stekoll, who also judges at the fair, said he looks at projects "with a hard eye." He tries to discern what the student did and what the mentor did.

Mentors sometimes have to put up with unmotivated students. It's gratifying to mentors when students do care about science, and when they see that the variables in their experiments do affect the results.

A lot of kids don't garden and they don't know where food comes from, Buyarski said. After conducting their plant experiments, they began to realize what farmers do.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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