Fair to highlight budding scientists

JDHS students pair up with mentors to prepare for weekend contest

Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2007

Most high school students don't get to study glaciology or bears, at least not personally. In Juneau, it's almost a requirement.

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Nearly 140 Juneau-Douglas High School students will compete this weekend in the regional science fair at the Marie Drake gymnasium. An open house will be held from 4:30 to 9 p.m. Friday and from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.

JDHS advanced physical science teacher Jonathan Smith said the field of young scientists is mainly comprised of freshmen and sophomores, who are required to participate for his class and the advanced biology classes.

The fair is open to all high school students, however.

"They're doing real science in the community in a laboratory experience," Smith said. "That's the idea, to get the students out of the high school and doing something extremely authentic in the scientific world."

Each student is paired with a scientist-mentor from the community and works on some uniquely Alaskan project, he said.

"What's happening now is those students who want to be competitive tend to seek out those mentors in town who are doing cutting-edge research," Smith said.

Past and present projects include issues closely tied with the community, such as intertidal ecology, glaciology and research on whales and avalanches.

"A lot of the information that people can learn from these projects is actually things they might want to know about their community," Smith said. "Because these are things that are done in Juneau, Alaska, and are done well."

Freshman Marie Speegle, 15, got to work with scavenging "garbage" bears alongside scientists from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Her project involved tracking two black bears with radio collars and studying when and how often they go into urban areas.

"I just thought the entire thing was fascinating because bears are just really interesting," Speegle said.

Using a specialized computer program, Speegle was able to see where and when each bear was visiting particular Juneau neighborhoods. She also got the chance to go with the scientists while they collared a problematic bear, even though the encounter wasn't used in her data.

Speegle not only learned scientific methods during her nearly 50 hours of work; she also learned about Juneau's festering garbage bear problem.

"It would probably be smart to deal with your garbage better when it is late summer because they do go into neighborhoods way more," she said.

Not all projects revolved around Juneau's strong connection to the natural world. Freshman Craig Kasberg, 15, compared the strength of concrete and grout in different shapes and sizes, with the help of a civil engineer.

"I just learned a lot about concrete and grout and how to apply different math calculations and equations to realize different situations," he said.

After spending nearly 25 hours on his project, Kasberg said he is thinking about choosing civil engineering as a possible career.

Two individuals and one team will be selected Saturday to advance to the international science fair competition this May in Albuquerque, N.M., Smith said. Winners also will be selected to compete in the Alaska Science Symposium next March, with a chance to advance to the national competition.

"We're actually involved now in two different competitions, and our students are competing to go on to the nationals in both of those," Smith said.

This year's awards ceremony will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday in the Egan Library at the University of Alaska Southeast campus in Auke Bay.

Smith said JDHS students do well when competing nationally but often have stiff competition.

"Certainly we are gifted with the number of scientists in town who are willing to be mentors," he said. "At the same time we're limited by the fact that we're a town of 30,000 people and it's a closed community."

The Juneau students often compete against teams and individuals mentored by professors from the likes of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale and Harvard, Smith said.

"They have equipment at their disposal, like nuclear reactors and particle accelerators," he said. "At the same time, we hold our own in those categories in which Juneau excels."

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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