Have you ever wondered how toxic your toothbrush is? Or maybe went a little deeper and thought how probiotic bacteria communicate with their host? Don’t worry, the scientists of the future are doing that for you.
The best and brightest from Grades seven through 12 showed off their smarts at the Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair March 23. The event showcased the work of more than 400 students at both Hillfield Strathalan College and Mohawk College, giving away more than $140,000 in prizes to the top students.
Dr. Peter Childs, whose background is in biochemistry, has been judging science fairs for more than 30 years, and says he’s always impressed by what he sees.
“Periodically you get one that’s mind-blowingly original,” he said. “But even with a project that’s been done thousands of times before, each student can bring a new twist to it in a very nice way or expand the question beyond the norm.”
For anyone doubting just how original a high school science project could be, the grand prize winner was Assumption High School student Sarah Wu for her project “Colorimetric Detection of Plasmodium Falciparum via Aptasensor Technology”. For winning, she will be heading in May to Phoenix, Arizona for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
And when it comes judging, Childs and his fellow judges have a challenging task. Don Barclay from the Chemical Institute of Canada was one of the judges for a special award given to an exceptional student who focused on chemistry and chemical engineering. This means looking at every project in search of chemistry, and this is not easy.
“In some cases we unfortunately have to determine what they did versus what their resources did to help them out,” he said. “This is the 24th [science fair] we’ve done in a row so you get a sense of what the students should be capable of.”
Dr. Childs agrees that it’s important to figure out how much of the project the students completed themselves, and not by their parents.
“We have to be alert to that,” he said. “Not only parents, but students who will apprentice in a university laboratory, and from a judging point of view you have to actually tease out how much was done by the student and how much was done by the prof or parent.”
But that’s not to sell the students short; BASEF was filled with original and challenging projects. Grade 11 student and Silver Merit award recipient Jessica Knight tested capsaicin (what gives hot peppers their heat) as a biochemical pesticide against the common cricket.
“I thought it would be a good idea to use this as my biochemical pesticide because it doesn’t affect mammals or birds and it’s only targeted at insects.”
For Jessica and some of her peers, these projects are a stepping-stone to something bigger.
“I was thinking of going to McMaster into honors biology,” she said.
But some take it casually, even if they are gifted young scientists. Blake Correia, the gold medal winner for his project ‘Is Your Water Pure?’, said that while he liked the project, he didn’t see science as a career.
“I think it is a hobby because I like this project and I actually like science, but I wouldn’t take it as a job.”
For winning gold, Blake received a cash award along with a medal. Dr. Childs says that much of the prize money given to Blake and the other winners come from the community.
“It’s solely community driven, so we basically get no committed funds from any government or anything,” he said. “Every year we have to go back to the community and ask for funds to help us out, and we typically make about $100 000 a year to provide, and about 80% goes back to the students by way of prizes.”
And what about that classic experiment, the baking soda volcano?
“There’s one here,” said Dr. Childs. “But sometimes somebody has a new take on the volcano.”