Student scientists' topics: Mars to baby talk

This year's science fair drew more than 100 projects by 161 students

Posted: Monday, February 26, 2001

Tiffany Wells, a sophomore at Juneau-Douglas High School, wanted to simulate the atmosphere of Mars in an aquarium biosphere so she could try growing plants to see if that would fertilize the soil and add oxygen to the air.

But she didn't account for the much greater atmospheric pressure on Earth than on Mars, so she'll be back next year with a better project, Wells said Saturday at the Ninth Annual Capital City High School Science Fair at the Marie Drake Gymnasium.

"Space is so huge. Maybe finding another planet that can sustain human life," Wells said, explaining an interest that has led her to a space camp in Alabama and to volunteer at the Marie Drake Planetarium.

Forrest Wolfe, also a sophomore, asked himself whether babies would talk more if an adult spoke to them in "baby talk," rather than in a detached tone.

"I love to work with babies," he said. "I like working with children a lot. It's just one of my strong things."

Wolfe asked four mothers to talk to their babies for three minutes in a neutral, adult tone of voice, with a blank face. Then he asked them to use the cooing, sing-song voice of baby talk and play peek-a-boo with their baby. The mothers' baby talk and interactions did stimulate more utterances from the babies.

"Unfortunately, I have no confidence in my data," Wolfe said, explaining he used only four babies and didn't place them in a neutral environment or account for the mothers' different relationships with their children.

Learning the appropriate method for an experiment and learning from mistakes is part of science, organizers said. Scot Tiernan, one of 96 volunteer judges with a scientific background, suggested Wells consider a glass sphere, a design used in diving bells, to withstand the atmospheric pressure for her Mars-like biosphere.

"Probably a big part of the scoring is the teaching aspect, asking students questions they may not have thought of when they were working on the project," said Mike Sakarias, one of the organizers of the privately sponsored event that drew 161 students in 57 individual projects and 47 team projects.

Judged outstanding and winning $300 and a trip to the Alaska Science and Engineering Fair in Anchorage in several weeks were sophomore Carl Brodersen for a project on the feeding preferences of a snail, and juniors Lia Carpeneti and Sarah Moore for work on garlic's effects on bacteria. Complete science fair results will be printed in the Neighbors section of an upcoming Empire.

Lev Tobias won the Juneau Audubon Society Award for his effort to apply chaos theory to the flight of birds taking off from the ground. In chaos theory, "anything that's seemingly chaotic or random, you can find a pattern or some type of order," he said.

Tobias videotaped 11 flocks of seagulls taking off, froze every 10th frame and counted the birds on the ground and in the air to quantify their actions. But he found what's called a logistic curve equation, the sort used to predict population growth, provided a better model for what happened than did the chaos theory formula he applied.

"The data wasn't chaotic to begin with" because he didn't videotape the birds long enough in their flight, Tobias said. "That's why the chaos formula wouldn't work."

A balsa-wood bridge-building contest, an Engineer's Week activity sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers, coincided with the science fair. Students competed to build a bridge that could hold the most weight proportional to its own weight. Students watched their bridges creak and groan as a jack being cranked lower pulled on the bottom of the bridges until they broke.

Matt Voelckers, a sophomore who won in both the truss and beam categories for students age 13 to 17, said he knew an arched truss bridge and triangular beams would be the strongest.

"It's kind of like spokes in a bike wheel," Voelckers said. "Radiating out like that, it applies nearly equal stress to most of the arch and that distributes the weight evenly."

"It was definitely a nice-looking bridge," said Loren Gehring, one of the bridge design engineers with the state Department of Transportation who ran the Juneau contest.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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