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Research-slaked curiosity fuels science fair

Don’t wrap your strawberries in plastic, but do groom your horse to calm it down and expect to shake hands with your dog’s left paw.

From utilizing “clustered, regularly-interspaced, short palindromic repeats” in the DNA of prokaryotic organisms to the comparative growth curves of beagles and yellow Labs, there was a lot to learn from Central Virginia teenagers on Wednesday.

More than 300 regional students from grades 6 to 12 highlighted their scientific-method research efforts at the John Paul Jones Arena in the 39th annual Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair.

The fair gave students a chance to explain their research from notion to verdict in a juried exhibition. The two top winners of the high school fair win expense-paid trips to the International Science & Engineering Fair to compete for $3 million in awards and scholarships.

The winner of each division in the senior high school category is invited to the Virginia State Science & Engineering Fair, while the winner in each division of the junior high school category is invited to the SSP Middle School Program, a national science competition.

“This is pretty old-school, with poster boards and all that,” said Adrian Felts, fair director. “Some students have handwritten boards and others computer-printed boards and some look like graduate level presentations. A lot depends on what technology is available to the student, but what we’re interested in is their curiosity and their use of the scientific method.”

The students lined the sidelines of the University of Virginia basketball court in the arena, their project posters poised on table tops in two rows. Volunteer judges wandered about, taking notes as students sagaciously expounded on why they studied their topic, how they studied it and what it all means.

For Emily Henriksen, a home-schooled middle school student from Fredericksburg, it was the strawberries at the bottom of the basket always moldering before their time that put her to work.

“I like fruit and a lot of the time I’d go to get a strawberry and it would be white with mold and that’s disgusting,” she explained. “I compared different methods of protecting the fruit from spoiling to see which was better.”

Using blueberries, strawberries, apples and bananas as her subjects, she wrapped some in plastic cling wrap, some in tin foil, placed others in plastic containers and still others just on their own. She even compared refrigerated fruits to the counter top variety.

First, she notified family that the one section of refrigerator contained forbidden fruit.

“I made sure everyone knew so they wouldn’t eat my project,” she said “I thought that the plastic wrapped would turn out the best but it really didn’t get the job done. In fact, they got moldy first. I believe it’s because the wrap prevented air from getting to the fruit but also it kept the moisture in and that encouraged the mold growth.”

The best method was either tin foil wrap or placing the fruit in a plastic container.

“I believe the aluminum foil doesn’t fit as tight and allows more air in and there is more room available in the plastic container,” she hypothesized.

She said the experiment showed fruits remain fresher when refrigerated, but cautioned against chilling bananas.

“Tropical fruits are sensitive to the cold,” she explained. “They don’t do so well.”

“We’re really getting a lot of entries from young women, but the challenge for both women and men is to keep their attention going from middle school to high school,” said the fair’s chairman, Gary Henry. “They really need to receive encouragement from the teachers, school and family that this is something good to do. Peer pressure still exists and those who are interested in tech and science are not exactly revered by their cohort.”

They are revered by universities, however. John Gary Williams, sitting in a corner behind a table laden with Hokie bric-a-brac, attended the fair both as a judge and as a recruiter for Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.

In 2018, the college had the top-ranked natural resources and conservation study program in the country, the top-ranked forestry program and the seventh-ranked packaging systems and design program.

“Parents and some of the adults who attend the fair pick on me about being from Virginia Tech and recruiting at a fair held at UVa, but here I am,” he said.

“All colleges have recruiters but we’re trying to [be] creative about where we go. We’re trying to find high school students interested in STEM classes,” he said. “Here I can interview students who are focused on science and technology and let them know about programs we offer that they may have never heard of.”

Ideas came from a variety of inspirations. For Josh Young, of Freedom Middle School in Spotsylvania County, it was his dog.

“I do this fist-bump with my dog and I noticed that she always used her left paw and I wondered if dogs have a paw preference when shaking hands,” he said. “I have a lot of friends and family who have dogs and I got them involved.”

Carefully arranging a paw-to-hand shake session with proper canine posture and perfect placement of the proffered metacarpi, Young found that majority of dogs preferred to offer their southpaw paw.

“It was interesting because there were a few who only wanted to use their right paws,” he said.

Pets proved quite the inspirers. Nearby, Peter Evertz, a King George middle school student, explained how he compared the growth patterns of his family’s beagle and yellow Labrador retriever using veterinarian records and hands-on experimentation with feeding and exercising.

“I was surprised that for some time they were pretty much growing at the same rate,” he said. “And then the lab just took off.”

Right next to Evertz, Jade Hardin, of Prospect Heights Middle School in Orange County, explained the soothing effects of good equine grooming.

“I used to have a lot of horses and lived right by a highway with a lot of Arabians who are bit more sensitive. A lot of people would say grooming calmed their horses down,” she said.

Hardin took vital signs from horses of different ages and physical condition before and after grooming. Although the impacts were slightly different for each horse, the grooming did show a calming effect.

“It had the most effect on the horses that were the most active,” she said. “I think that could correspond to people as well, if they exercise a lot, a calming influence would be more effective.”

The fair competitors could be at the forefront of the future economy. Felts and Henry note that the science and technology work worlds are expanding and jobs are often readily available for new college graduates. Felts said the companies for which he has worked often hire recent college graduates with the right skills.

“I started wondering what does the feeder pattern for job applicants for the tech-related jobs look like, so I contacted Gary and became a judge,” Felts recalled. “It was a good opportunity to see how things develop and to encourage it.”

“I don’t think people understand how many jobs are available in the tech world,” Gary Henry said. “It could be that their friends aren’t supportive or their families don’t have anyone in the field, but this is a way to encourage that interest.”


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