From hot dog cooker to fossil finds Youths succumb to joy of science

May 29, 1993|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,Staff Writer

Brett Taylor and his friends were determined to build the world's best solar hot dog cooker.

They assembled a contraption made of cardboard, aluminum foil and straight pins. But it only reached 102 degrees -- which barely qualified for warm dogs, let alone hot dogs.

So it was back to the drawing board. This time the fifth-graders used a stainless steel bowl, a picture frame and black construction paper.

The hot dogs got hot, and Brett, wearing his solar-powered, self-cooling baseball cap, proudly got to show off "the grill of the future" to a group of like-minded young scientists this week.

About 80 fifth- and sixth-graders from Baltimore area schools gathered Thursday at the University of Maryland Baltimore County to share their scientific discoveries on a variety of topics, ranging from the habitat and diet of mealworms to nonrecyclable candy wrappers and schools in space.

Organizers called it the First Annual Kids Inquiry Conference, designed to bring young researchers together in the same, noncompetitive atmosphere of adult science conventions.

"This is an unusual chance for students to investigate and design their own experiments," said Charles Pearce, a science teacher at Manchester Elementary School in Carroll County, "and then just like adults do, meet with other kids they don't know and share their knowledge."

For Brett, who attends Carroll Manor Elementary School, this is "real science."

"Scientists need to find ways to improve the environment so someday we will use natural energy from the sun for everything," he said.

Intrigued by solar energy, Brett also designed an experiment involving a radiometer, a glass bulb containing a sort of pinwheel made of black and white panels.

The radiometer turns clockwise when sunlight hits the black panels. But Brett and his team of scientists wanted to find a way to make it turn counterclockwise.

"I knew that if atoms heat up, they bounce into the black, making it turn clockwise," he said. "So I thought if the atoms cooled down, they would run into the white and turn the other way."

After numerous trials and errors, the scientists discovered that pouring cold water over the radiometer would do the trick.

"I just used what I already knew from watching Mr. Wizard on Nickelodeon about radiometers, then read a lot of pamphlets about solar energy and then just thought about it," Brett said, as he poured cold water over the radiometer. It worked.

Other students engaged in more earthbound pursuits. Hammering through layers of sedimentary rock in her starched white blouse and navy jumper, fifth-grader Jacquetta Cole of Vision Christian Academy said she had never learned about fossils until the conference.

"Finding fossils is hard work, but when you get used to it, it becomes like a game and it becomes more interesting," she said, lifting an 8-pound sledgehammer.

While some exhibits allowed the audience to participate -- by hammering rocks or pouring water on mountains of sand to show erosion -- all the projects required students to think.

"Science fairs are geared to those who want to compete," said Veronica Stokes, a sixth-grade science teacher at Winston Middle School in Baltimore.

"These students are learning that anyone who wants to design, test and answer their own questions about science can do it."

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