Young scientists exhibit strengths at annual fair

Science projects explore biology, physics and Juneau's environment

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2006

Nearly 130 projects were on display at the Southeast Alaska Regional Science Fair in the Marie Drake gymnasium Saturday, exploring biology to physics and everything in between.

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"We get bigger and better every year," said Koren Bosworth, a botanist and the fair's director. "The kids get more sophisticated in their projects, and we had a lot more projects this year."

The fair's committee altered the judging format this year to be closer to that of the international science fair, Bosworth said. Teams of four judges are assigned a certain number of projects and come to a consensus on each student's score. Then the teams' captains decide which students move to the next round of judging. In prior years the judges would come up with individual scores and the judging team would add them together for a student's score.

Bosworth said about a dozen students will go through the final round of judging today, with the top two individual projects and one team project selected to compete in May at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Indianapolis. Two students also will be selected to attend the international event as observers.

"Our kids always compete very well at the international fair," Bosworth said. "A lot of it is because we have such a unique environment here and a lot of the kids do projects involved in that."

With the exception of two projects from upperclassmen, all came from students in Jonathan Smith's Advanced Physical Science or Advanced Biology classes at Juneau-Douglas High School. Smith said a science project is required in those classes, but sometimes students take it beyond the average assignment.

"The bottom line is I'm trying to teach the scientific method in such a way that they're actually doing the science," he said. "But what gets really exciting is when a kid just gets sparked on whatever subject they're delving into and it becomes a labor of love rather than an assignment."

Each student is required to select a topic, find a mentor - an expert in the topic from the community - and design a scientific procedure with the mentor before spending at least 10 hours on data collection. The students analyze the data before reaching their conclusions and creating abstracts and displays for the fair.

Smith said the uniqueness of the natural environment in Southeast Alaska is not the only advantage students have in Juneau.

"The greatest advantage they have is the fact that we're a community full of scientists," he said. "I could not do this without the support of the great variety of mentors that are willing to give huge amounts of their time."

Sophomore Stephen Young studied the effect of post-glacial uplift in Southeast Alaska on some of its trees.

"What I found is that the rates of uplift are very similar to the rate of spruce tree colonization," he said.

Young said he chose a project that would let him do some research in the outdoors.

"It was very fun," he said. "I enjoyed being outside and just kind of taking a breather from the regular load of homework - just going out and doing stuff in the field. It's kind of a hands-on experience."

Sophomore Kimiko Urata, a Crimson Bears swimmer, wanted to study something she was interested in, so she decided to study how salinity affects bacteria growth in water. The bacteria she focused on for her project was enterococci.

"What I found is the more salt, the more bacteria," she said.

Urata said experience pays off when it comes to the science fair. "I did it last year, and I think this year it was a little bit easier."

Bosworth said the science fair is only possible because of the dedication and support from the community.

"The mentors are all members of the community, and we get our money from individuals and organizations in the community," she said. "It's a huge community effort and we couldn't do it if it weren't for that."

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



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