Piquing interest in science, math

Students develop research projects with military advisers in nationwide contest

February 04, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Kyle Cornelius and Steven Prichard discussed the effects of flashing lights in video games on people who are prone to seizures.

"Some kids are deprived of playing video games because they have seizures that people say are caused by the flashing lights," 11-year-old Kyle said.

Across the room at the Boys and Girls Clubs in Bel Air, Ryan Brooks and Shane Eddy were researching athletic field turf on the Internet.

"There are a lot of different kinds of turfs that are better than grass," said Shane, 12. "But a lot of them are very expensive. We have to find one that is both affordable and durable."

The youngsters were working on projects for a program designed to get youngsters interested in science, math and technology.

The eCYBERMISSION program is a Web-based research competition that was created by the Defense Department in 2001 for students in grades six through nine. About 10,000 middle school children on 2,900 teams from across the country are competing this year, including 16 new teams from county schools and youth organizations.

"Statistics show that we have to stimulate interest in these areas at the middle school level when students are beginning to think about career choices," said Michael Doyle, a Defense Department employee who manages the program.

Participants must be enrolled in a U.S. public or private school, a Defense Department school or a U.S. home-school program. Teams are composed of three or four students in the same grade and a team adviser.

Teams identify a problem in their community and propose a solution. The problems are selected from four categories: sports and recreation, arts and entertainment, environment, and health and safety. They can include such things as finding cost-effective ways to control water pollution, creating better bandages and designing a ballet shoe.

The participants research the problem and search for a solution using science, math and technology, Doyle said.

"It is all about researching and presenting a logical solution," he said.

The program is new to Harford County. Its headquarters was recently moved to Aberdeen Proving Ground, so Doyle introduced it to children in the county's schools and youth organizations.

"It is a fun introduction to science," Doyle said.

The Boys and Girls Clubs began offering the program to give children a chance to make a difference in their community, said Doug Szoka, the information and technology director at the Bel Air branch of the Boys and Girls Club.

"Whether it is a problem within their neighborhood, town, county or state, this program gets kids to look beyond their homes and into the community," Szoka said.

Over about six weeks, the students compile data, perform experiments and create models that are documented, photographed and saved in a folder. The information is to be submitted online by Feb. 20.

Three judges grade the folders and select a winning team from each grade level in four regions. The teams vie for savings bonds of up to $3,000. The winners from the four regions then compete for a $5,000 savings bond in the national competition, to be held in June in Washington.

Prize money aside, the program is intended to help children develop interests and skills they can use with or without a college degree, said Donald Mathis, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Harford County.

"With BRAC, there are going to be a lot of jobs created in this area that won't require a college degree," Mathis said, referring to the military base realignment. "And we will be [getting] jobs in technology. These kids are learning the skills they need to do those jobs in programs like this."

Although students have worked on their projects for only a few weeks, they are kicking into high gear to meet the deadline.

"We have a lot of our research done," Kyle said. "We know that flashing lights can cause people to have seizures, but now we have to figure out what kind of device to make so that these kids can play video games without getting hurt."

On a recent afternoon, the teams worked in a two-hour session with advisers - in this case enlisted soldiers from the proving ground - who volunteered to help them.

"We are here to help the teams narrow the focus of their problems to something manageable," said Sfc. Joe Newby. "But we are also here because these kids are the future leaders of our country, and we want to help them learn."

In a computer room in the back of the Bel Air Boys and Girls Club, the two teams brainstormed solutions for their problems.

Kyle, a member of the Sixers team, told of a friend who is prone to having seizures while playing video games and how they experimented with wearing sunglasses while playing. That led to an idea for a helmet, like those used by fighter pilots, that incorporates tinted lenses.

Steven had another idea.

"Or, if the kids really don't want to wear glasses or helmets, they could have their parents set timers and just take breaks from playing," said Steven, 11.

Meanwhile, Ryan and Shane, members of the SDR team, debated turfs.

"If we come up with a good turf that does not cost too much, then maybe we can put some of it on our soccer field," Ryan said. "Then we would be helping our community, because a lot of people play on our fields."

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