Local students gain national recognition for science projects

Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2010

Two Juneau-Douglas High School students have received national recognition for projects entered in this year's Southeast Alaska Regional Science Fair: Lia Domke and Kaitelyn McDonald. Both of the students' projects centered around the effects of ocean acidification on the environment.

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Their teacher, Jonathan Smith, said that this phenomenon is marked by small changes of pH due to CO2 concentration. He noted that at this point in time the effects of the change are most evident in invertebrates and plankton, but that the current scientific interest in the topic stems from the impact that these animals have on others that are higher up the food chain, including us.

Smith is notorious among Juneau high-schoolers as one of the best and most demanding teachers in the school, if not the state. He was selected as a state finalist for teacher of the year in 2005. His classes' involvement in the science fair has been key to the success of Juneau students at the fair for more than a decade.

"Mr. Smith is intimidating your freshman year; he demands a lot from you, but because he does, you have to give him a lot," said Domke. "If you expect an A, by the time you come out with it, it's an A that means something,"

As a junior, this year was Domke's second chance to participate in the science fair. Knowing how much work she was in for, she got started early, choosing her mentor, professor Sherry Timone of UAS, during the summer and bouncing ideas around about the project. She settled on "How Water Temperature and pH Affects the Metabolic Rate of Juvenile Blue King Crabs."

"It's sort of how global warming affects their metabolic rate," she said.

Her project and presentation made it through two rounds of judging at the local fair, held March 12-14 this past spring, to earn her trip to this year's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose, Calif. She went there with a contingent of five other students selected from Juneau, accompanied by Smith.

At ISEF, attention from special awards judges garnered her a $50,000 scholarship offer from the Florida Institute of Technology. Domke said that she hadn't considered going to college so far from home, but that with the offer, the school is definitely on her list of colleges to tour this summer with her parents.

For McDonald, a freshman, this year was her first opportunity to participate in the fair. Her project, "Seasonal Variations in Water Quality on Jordan and Duck Creek," was a combined analysis of pH, water temperature, turbidity and the levels of total suspended solids and total dissolved solids in the two creeks. She fortified her data with information from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and compared her findings to Alaskan water standards.

"It was a lot of fun - really stressful, but fun," she said.

At the local fair, she was awarded the Stockholm Junior Water Prize, an internationally recognized award for water-related science projects. One project is chosen at each regional fair to advance to a state level competition; one project from that round advances to the national competition. The winner of the national competition ascends to the final, international round, held each year in Stockholm, Sweden.

McDonald did quite well for herself at the state level, beating out the other entrants from around Alaska to emerge victorious. She is now setting her sights on the next round.

"I'm excited. I've never been to a national competition before," she said.

McDonald, her mother, Denise Elston, and Mr. Smith will fly down to Missouri so she can compete in the national round of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize competition, held June 17-20 in St. Louis.

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