Students excel at Native science fair

Two Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School girls examine canoe wood

Posted: Monday, February 28, 2005

Two Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School girls placed first at a Native-oriented science fair in Anchorage this month.

And a Dzantik'i Heeni boy will compete in the state science fair next month.

Sixth-graders Daffodil Alinson and Maya Rieselbach examined what wood is best for building canoes.

Their project placed second in the school's Cedar House science fair and first in its Native fair, held at the same time last month.

Nick Parker, a seventh-grader, won the Cedar House fair and will compete in the Alaska Science and Engineering Fair on March 11-13 in Anchorage.

He wanted to know if Juneau elementary students have a higher rate of obesity than the nation's children as a whole.

Daffodil and Maya said the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Society Science Fair, held at the Imaginarium museum, was more stressful than the Cedar House fair.

The students had to come up with a project notebook and a written report. And the judges expected to hear a presentation before they asked their own questions.

"We also had to create a test for the judges because they wanted you to get the judges involved in your project," Daffodil said.

Students were judged by two sets of adults, one concerned with Western scientific methods, the other looking at Native ways of knowing.

"The ones we were most impressed with really did incorporate past living situations with a scientific aspect," said Renae Neys, a judge and staff member at the Imaginarium.

The students tested for water absorption and density in sixkinds of wood from trees that grow locally. Lumber stores supplied samples.

"We sort of had to think on our own," Maya said. "We sort of had to think, if we built a canoe, what would we be looking for?"

Daffodil and Maya reasoned that wood that absorbs water would become heavy and prone to sinking. Dense wood would be strong and able to withstand waves, they felt.

They dried out the pieces of wood in an oven, put them in tap water for three days, and compared the pieces' weight before and after. Red cedar is best, they said.

The students placed first in one of two groups of students from elementary schools and middle schools. Their transportation was paid by a grant for the district's Native-oriented Camp Water and Tides project.

Maya and Daffodil were successful because they knew their material, said Cedar House science teacher Gary Campbell.

"When asked questions, they were very well rehearsed in the information they had there," he said.

The girls knew the material well because their initial tests didn't work out and they thought up a better experiment, Campbell said.

Nick, who was interested in obesity, collected the height and weight of each elementary student from school nurses and used it to calculate the students' body mass index.

"It takes a long time. I probably spent 50-some hours typing in all the data," Nick said.

He broke out the information by school, gender and whether the school is eligible for federal anti-poverty funds.

About 26 percent of 2,014 elementary students were obese, compared to a national average for youths of 16 percent, he said.

"If you look outside, it's wet, it's raining, it's dark. You stay inside more," Nick said, speculating on Juneau's high rate of obesity.

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.

Nick's project was very timely, Cedar House science teacher Steve Morley said.

"He was incredibly thorough. He really worked his information," Morley said. "And he got really good results. He was able to see differences."

The science fair at Cedar House is recent and growing. Several years ago, science teacher Topaz Shryock noticed that her students in a Southeast Native science fair were very interested in their projects.

"Often, I don't see that level of engagement in class," she said.

Shryock began the Cedar House science fair with students in a science club, and year by year has included more students. In this year, its fourth, all Cedar House students participated.

The hardest part for teachers is getting students to formulate questions and hypotheses that are manageable. When students want to ask what lightning is, teachers steer them to an experiment with static electricity.

Students already know about the scientific method from classroom labs, teachers said.

"Observations are a hard part of it," Morley said. "Seeing what actually happens, not what they want to happen."



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