Sat, Jul

California Science and Engineering Fair:  The Best and the Brightest


GELFAND’S WORLD - It's something of a nasty cliche among professional cynics that our schools don't teach, and our students don't learn. I see it as exactly the opposite, but I'm coming from a different perspective. Each year for the past 20, I have participated in the California Science and Engineering Fair (previously known as the California State Science Fair). I get to see the work of some remarkable students, as supported and developed by teachers, parents, and occasionally some professor who allows the student to work in a university lab. 

The CSEF views projects over a wide range of topics, from Physics and Astronomy to Behavioral Science to Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Each such category may have as many as 25 or 30 projects. The judging is done by volunteer scientists and engineers, almost all of whom are professionals in the subject. The fair tends to recruit judges who have engineering degrees and work in the local defense industry, alongside of science judges who mostly have either a PhD degree or an MD. 

Out of this process, we see some remarkable work. For example, one project involves the design and construction of a wheel that can walk upstairs and over obstacles, using engineering ideas and mathematics that already exist, but taking the idea further, so as to build a wheel that can go higher. The student not only conceived of the design but built a working model using a 3D printer and showed the workings in a video. 

How does one get to be a winner at this level? 

Each student is interviewed by several judges, one at a time. At the end of the judging period, the judges for each category come together (nowadays over the internet) and decide who the winners are. They debate the merits (and the weaknesses) of all the projects in their category, and out of this, they award first through fourth places and sometimes give Honorable Mention prizes. 

Each student can write "Finalist, California Science and Engineering Fair" in a college application. 

Here is another category winner which, from my humble perspective, kind of blows me away. 

I'll start with a two-sentence introduction to the topic: Back when many of us were a lot younger, there was no direct evidence for planets orbiting around other stars. In recent decades, astronomy has developed to where it is possible to look at the light emitted from a specific star over the course of time. 

From where we are, a planet passing between its star and ourselves will cause a dip in the intensity of the light we see. A planet will show itself by creating that dip in light intensity on a periodic basis, sometimes getting in the way of the light, other times being on the opposite side of its star. 

Lots of distant planets have been detected in this way, but until now, it has not been possible to find a small set of such planets that are very, very close to their respective stars -- so close, in fact, that they orbit around their stars in less than one earth day. 

It also turns out that such planets are orbiting stars that are a lot dimmer than our sun and will survive for much longer. Thus, the search for these planets is something that could fit into a science fictional scenario where a far-future humanity is looking for another home as our own sun faces extinction. 

In this case, the high school student found the smallest ultra-short-period-exoplanet that has yet been discovered. 

By the way, this project was not done using some multimillion-dollar telescope apparatus, but by finding a better way to analyze data that the U.S. government supplies to anybody who wants to look at. We science fair judges are seeing more and more projects in which students have found ingenious ways to search "big data" sources for new insights. 

Another project: The decrease in the bee population has been a subject of considerable concern, due to the fact that a lot of agriculture and a lot of nature in general are dependent on healthy bee populations. This has inspired quite a few students’ science projects, and at the state finals, we get to see some of the best. We looked at an analysis of how honeybees react to changes in the weather, a project in which the student applied electronic trackers to individual bees and used the signals to develop a data set on bee behavior relative to whether changes. 

And another: There has been a lot of concern and speculation about a condition that is known as the Autism Spectrum. The most severe cases of autism show up early in life in about one in a thousand children. There are others who are not so severely affected, and some who are barely affected. Thus, doctors and parents refer to children being "on the spectrum." 

There has also been a lot of work suggesting that finding the condition early is useful because many autistic children can learn to function better if taught properly, and from an early enough age. 

In this science fair, a pair of students developed a system for analyzing how children follow an image by eye (among other things) in a project titled "Development of an innovative Eye Tracking & Audio Hybrid system for ASD Early Detection. The idea is that autistic children differ from the more neurotypical in this regard, so developing a system for early diagnosis would be useful. In the judges' report, the summary is "Great combination of technology with behavioral science." 

Let's look at one more student project which was aimed at a particularly scary condition. There is a disease known as Glioblastoma, which most of us know as a "brain tumor." As of now, there are not a lot of effective methods for treating glioblastoma. It doesn't react as well to standard chemical approaches as other cancers, and it appears in places that can be fatal quickly. (It is for these reasons that glioblastoma has been one of the targets of cancer quacks.) 

Much is being learned about glioblastoma, but we're in a sort of in-between moment. The science fair student used investigative tools that had been developed for other applications and used them well. Briefly, the student looked in the data bases for a target gene that might make a glioblastoma cell susceptible to some sort of chemical attack. The gene of interest was confirmed by conferring with experts on the disease, who allowed as how they considered it a possible point for intervention. The student then used computer programs which model the interaction between that gene's expressed protein and any other chemical. Which chemical? The current approach is to look at drugs that are already FDA approved for other diseases but are not currently used on glioblastoma. You generally have to look at a lot of such drugs, but that's what computers are for. 

This was a study that could be done by a biotechnology company or a university lab, but it was done by a high school student. For those of you who are interested, the student came up with a couple of drugs that are already being used on other cancers and can now be tested on glioblastoma cells growing in the dish in a laboratory and possibly in some animal model for brain tumors. 

The best and the brightest 

I'll stop with the detailed descriptions here, other than to confess that I picked these almost at random out of the 16 category winners. But among the other worthy contenders, we saw projects involving genetic engineering in plants, a way to make inexpensive photocells in a safer way, and a project that looked at how to project the amount of bending in a lipid bilayer conferred by some protein -- something that sounds complicated and chemical but turns out to be critical in terms of such things as viral infection. One student looked at how we could protect a space station from long term growth of noxious bacteria simply by adjusting the plastic coating along the walls at the molecular level. And finally, there was a math project which looked at something called "friends and strangers’ graphs," and which has promise in the development of computer programs. 

Somehow, these students have been encouraged to engage in science, their teachers and mentors have helped them through the process, and the California Science and Engineering Fair has given them the opportunity to flex their intellectual muscles against the judges’ questions and to gain useful feedback in what the rest of us hope will be careers in science, medicine, engineering, and other important roads in life. 

One other comment. There has been a lot of discussion about STEM learning, where STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Much of the discussion involves extending STEM learning to girls, on the assumption that somehow math and science are boy things. At the CSEF level, we don't seem to see that difference. In fact, the projects I mentioned above were presented by male and female students alike. For example, the astronomy project was done by a female. Likewise, the judges seemed to be more or less equally divided among male and female. We can hope that this is an indication of things to come in every part of the world and at every socioeconomic level. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)