Students try to break new ground at science fair

JDHS pupils see if birds can talk and cold changes math scores

Posted: Sunday, February 27, 2000

Bonnie Moeller and Leah Wilson wanted to know if the school district was freezing their brains. Toby Harbanuk wondered if triangular trusses make a stronger bridge. Lev Tobias and his partners hoped a raven could ask for a toy by name.

Those Juneau-Douglas High School students and about 130 others tested their hypotheses for the privately supported Capital City High School Science Fair on Friday and Saturday at the Marie Drake gym.

When the Marie Drake building was underheated in the morning earlier this school year, Moeller and Wilson, two juniors whose classes are in the building, decided to check the effect of body temperatures on standardized test performance.

``They didn't turn on the heat until about 8 in the morning, and our rooms were freezing until 9 or 10 o'clock,'' Wilson said. ``So that kind of spurred the thought, how can we perform under lower temperatures?''

Moeller said they found an experiment on rats that showed the brain worked quicker with increasing temperatures, so they evolved a plan. Ten students sat in a refrigerated room answering standardized test questions in math and English, in temperatures of 68, 39 and minus 4 degrees.

Sure enough, all but one of the students showed progressively worse math scores as the temperature went down. But the students were surprised the English scores trended upward slightly.

Moeller and Wilson wonder if it's because math mainly uses the left hemisphere of the brain, which holds the logical and analytical functions. Perhaps in subjects such as English, which use more parts of the brain, it takes longer for cold to have an effect, Wilson said.

When Tobias, Kyle Brownlee and Heather Malick wanted to know if a raven could learn to refer to objects in English, they asked the bird. But the results were disappointing.

The three freshmen tried to train a captive raven named Blueberry, kept by the Juneau Raptor Center, to ask for a ball, a key or a ribbon. But either the bird didn't learn or he was holding out for better toys.

The students studied the ``model/rival'' technique of an Arizona professor who works with an African gray parrot that uses 70 words.

Blueberry already imitates about 10 words or phrases, but doesn't use them in a meaningful way, Tobias said.

The students tried to model what they wanted the raven to say by asking each other for the object. The idea is the bird would do the same because it wanted the principal trainer's attention.

Blueberry said ``ball'' once - when there was no ball around. Tobias figures the students would have gotten results with more intensive and prolonged training.

Harbanuk, a junior interested in engineering, built six balsa wood bridges to see if a triangular prism truss could hold more weight than a rectangular box, which is what's used in bridges.

He figured the triangle would perform better because it's a stronger shape than a rectangle - it can't buckle sideways. In the real world it would deflect wind better and use less material because it doesn't have cross bars.

``Engineering is essentially solving problems before they happen, not running over budget, making a strong, reliable bridge but not using more material than you absolutely have to,'' Harbanuk said.

But he found the rectangular boxes held an average of 25 pounds before breaking, although their performance varied widely, while the triangular prisms held an average of about 23 pounds.

And in the real world, the vertical clearance in a rectangular truss is important, an engineer told him.

Scholarships and prizes worth over $4,000 were awarded to more than 40 students at the fair.

Three projects were judged outstanding. Each of those team members received a $250 scholarship from National Bank of Alaska and a free trip to the Alaska Science and Engineering Fair slated for Anchorage in March.

The outstanding projects were ``How Chemical Surfactants Affect Oil Spills'' by Benjamin Tuxhorn; ``The Effects of Age of Garlic Juice on the Potency of Garlic's Antifungal Properties'' by Sarah Moore and Claire Imamura with help from Lia Carpeneti; and ``Air Cushion Vehicle Construction'' by Carl Brodersen.

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