Next-generation scientists show their stuff at science fair

Public, private students compete in 2011 Baltimore Science Fair

March 28, 2011|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

Christopher Briggs' science project grew out of his grandparents' love of watching birds at their feeders.

"I kind of wanted to help them out," said the Sacred Heart School sixth-grader from Reisterstown. "I wanted to find out if the looks of the bird feeder affected how many birds were attracted to it."

So, Christopher, 12, applied the scientific method. And the results of his experiments with feeders — identical except for their colors — were presented Sunday at the 56th Baltimore Science Fair, at Towson University.

About 180 other middle- and high-school students participated, demonstrating to the judges how they applied the scientific method to quench their curiosity or to discover something new.

The two grand prize winners — Michael Tontchev, from Polytechnic Institute, and Jai Thakor, from River Hill High School in Howard County — will travel to Los Angeles next month to compete at the International Science and Engineering Fair.

Poly students have won the top prizes at the fair seven times in the past 11 years, the most of any school. As a group, Howard County schools have won all the other grand prizes since 2000, with River Hill High students winning four times. Students from any senior and junior high or middle schools in the city, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties can participate.

Christopher Briggs' bird feeder experiment wasn't among the winners. But he did make a discovery.

"I originally thought the yellow would get the most," he said, stating his experimental hypothesis. He reasoned that the seed in the feeders came mostly from sunflowers, which are yellow.

So he hung a green feeder and painted three identical feeders pink, white and yellow. Then he counted birds for 45 minutes each day. In the end, the green feeder proved to be the most popular with the birds — drawing almost twice as many as the yellow and white, and three times the pink.

His conclusion? "I'm probably thinking it [green] is a color of nature," Christopher said. Feeder makers, he added, "probably shouldn't make bird feeders that are weird colors."

Jon Cupp, a science teacher at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Essex — attending the fair with five of his students — confirmed for Christopher that his own science project in 1984, at Southampton Middle School in Harford County, had a similar result. Birds overwhelmingly preferred seed dyed green to other colors.

Science projects, he said, aren't meant to break new ground. "The main thing is getting kids to see the scientific method as a means for problem-solving," Cupp said. And a negative result is just as important as having your hypothesis confirmed.

Megan Walsh, 11, of Timonium, a sixth-grader at St. Joseph School in Cockeysville, was inspired by last year's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to find out how oil affected the growth of aquatic plants. "I think it's sad that plants and animals in rivers are dying," she said.

So she added graduated amounts of used motor oil to fresh water in Mason jars, and dropped in water plants called Anacharis. Her prediction was that plants with little or no oil would grow better than those with more oil. And she was right.

Every few weeks she measured the plants. As she predicted, the oil-free plant, and the one with the least oil, did best, remaining healthy and green.

But the oiled plants were hardier than she expected. "I found that the stalk lengths in all declined. But there was new growth in all, because they were feeding off the dying plants, which is sort of disgusting. I was surprised; I wasn't expecting any new growth shoots."

Agastya Parikh, a lanky 15-year-old sophomore at Howard High School, won several awards for his experiment testing the effects of wing flexibility on the lift and efficiency of the scale-model Airbus 330-300 airliner he built from balsa wood. His work attracted notice and a prize from the Air Force.

"I always liked airplanes," he said, explaining his interest in becoming an aeronautical engineer. An experienced flier who's made several trips to his native India, "I kinda feel like you're always treated nicely on airplanes; I like the views, for example. Takeoffs and landings are fun."

The students at Sunday's fair seemed to be exceptions to recent reports that Maryland students are lagging in science. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress tests found only 28 percent of the state's eighth-graders scored as proficient or better, near the middle of the pack nationally.

The Baltimore Science Fair was launched in 1956 by the Kiwanis Club of North Baltimore. At first it included public, private and parochial schools in Baltimore City. Baltimore County schools were invited in 1957, and the neighboring counties were invited in 1960.

Tricia Mae Fortuna, a 10th-grader at Maritime Industries Academy High School in Baltimore, also won the right to compete at the international fair in Los Angeles by taking first place in the physical science category at the 31st annual Morgan State University Science Fair, a regional competition that hosts both public and private school students.

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