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Meadow Park student filters national science fair's finest aspects

by: Shannon Wells Anirudh Jain was one of three Beaverton students invited to Washington, D.C.

One of 30 national finalists in the Broadcom MASTERS National Science Fair Competition in Washington, D.C., Anirudh Jain returned from the four-day competition to Oregon without a single prize for his presentation.

But if the Meadow Park Middle School eighth-grader feels slighted in any way, he's sure good at hiding it.

'It was a really good experience, even if I didn't win anything,' he said of the Sept. 30-Oct. 5 event. 'I still think I benefitted from it.'

Not only did he pick up ideas on how he could improve the efficacy of his experiment - using silver nano particles to filter water of e-coli bacteria - he got to meet a congressman from Oregon who recently supported a bill on the very technology he's using.

'One of the highlights was meeting Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden,' Jain said. 'Mr. Wyden was interested in my project. He passed a bill on nanotechnology. I was very interested to meet them.'

Suffice it to say, Jain, 13, made the most of his all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C.

He was one of three students from the Beaverton School District, selected from a pool of 1,476 students throughout the country, chosen to present at the inaugural program.

The Beaverton team was rounded out by Valerie Ding, a Meadow Park eighth-grader last year and now a freshman at Catlin Gabel School, and Mahita Tovinkere, now a seventh-grader at Stoller Middle School.

Fourteen of the competition's 300 semifinalists also were from Beaverton.

The event is hailed as a leading competition for middle school students to demonstrate their mastery of math, applied science, technology and engineering through science fair competition.

Starting with school-based fairs and graduating to regional events such as the Northwest Science Expo hosted by Portland State University, students are encouraged to find mentors, explore new interests and create a science or engineering project that fuels their passion and interest in 'STEM' (science, technology, engineering and math) learning throughout high school.

Susan Duncan, who teaches sixth- and seventh-grade science with the Summa North Academy option school at Meadow Park, is one of those mentors. She helped guide both Jain and Ding through the science-fair hierarchy as she has for eight years at the school.

'In order to get an invitation to apply to (Broadcom MASTERS), you have to win an award at the Northwest Science Expo,' she explained. 'That's a pretty special invitation.'

Duncan worked closely with Jain on his water-purification experiment, using silver nano particles and sponges in both pure and e-coli-contaminated water. For more precise testing, Jain and his father gained permission to use an electron microscope at the University of Oregon.

'He and his dad went down and worked with the electron microscope,' Duncan said. 'He showed that, through sampling with bacteria plates that the silver particle nano filter worked better. It was an exciting project.'

Traveling with his family to countries such as India and Guatemala, where safe drinking water is scarce, inspired Jain's project.

'My goal is to make an effective water filter, designing one for people who don't have the resources' for potable water, he said. 'I would like to make an inexpensive and portable filter.'

Jain's prototype filter proved effective in reducing e-coli contamination, but he admits the system needs refinements.

'One of the biggest challenges is I had to make silver nano particles using some dangerous chemicals,' he said, noting he had to use minuscule quantities for safety reasons. 'Making them is very difficult.'

Jain wasn't allowed to use e-coli bacteria at the competition in D.C., so his presentation consisted of a board with his data and conclusions, along with a prototype of the filter itself. He said he learned a good deal from the judges and in talking with students from other schools.

'I think I had room to improve, but for the most part, I got good feedback. For me, there was much more positive reinforcement,' he said.

Beyond its scientific significance, Jain is aware his project brings some harsh truths to light regarding disparities between developed and underdeveloped societies.

'In Third World countries, millions of people don't have resources for safe water,' he observed. 'When you go to those countries, you realize it's a luxury just to have safe drinking water there. It made me appreciate it a lot more.'

Jain's mother and father, Gitanjali and Ashu, and his 9-year-old brother Arjun accompanied him on the trip to the nation's capital. Ashu Jain recalls the friendliness and encouragement from their hosts and coordinators leading up to the event.

'It was fantastic,' said Ashu Jain, an engineer at Intel, of the trip. 'They took really good care of us as a family. We took our younger son with us, as well. It made him extremely interested in a science fair project.'

Now working on an update of his water-filter project for the 2011-12 school year's round of science fairs, Anirudh Jain praises his teacher as a tough, but inspiring mentor.

'If you turn in a project that's not up to your standards, she'll tell you bluntly,' he said of Duncan. 'She won't give you the answer, but she'll put you on the right track. It really makes science interesting.'

After all, he concludes, science is really about doing. 'It's a hands-on activity,' he said. 'It's a lot more fun to do it yourself than to hear about it.'