Students flaunt their discoveries and creations at science fair

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Stafford fifth-grader Jacob Huttula, right, discusses his water wheel with, from left, C.J. Anthonucci, Ian Hansen and Liam Hill. The sounds emanating from the Stafford Primary School gymnasium called to mind an early morning P.E. class, or maybe a particularly raucous school assembly. A steady stream of children’s voices reverberated against the walls, and in a different scenario it might have prompted a teacher’s call to order.

But this was a different kind of noise. For two hours on March 7, more than 100 students took part in the school’s annual science fair, alternately showing off their own work and rushing to view and discuss the creations of their peers. Where some opted for the more traditional experiments and tri-fold posters, others took the event as an opportunity to nurse interests like engineering and energy.

“That’s really what the goal of our science fair is, is to try to be open to all kinds of science,” Stafford instructional coordinator Patrick Minor said. “We don’t want to pigeonhole what science is.”

And so, aside from the most basic parameters — what should appear on the poster boards, what “scientific process” to follow, how to form a hypothesis or conclusion — Stafford’s students were free to explore whatever sparked their interest. A quick scan around the room revealed the fruits of that liberation, with project topics ranging from hyper-specific questions like “Do I really have to wash my hands?” to pure whimsy — “How evaporation affects fortune cookie crispiness.”

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - William Alexy, on right, fourth grade, explains his model of the Portland Steel Bridge with Jacob McClelland. Then there were the more elaborate engineering feats, such as a hydroelectric waterwheel that powered a small light bulb. The wheel was perched on top of the stage in the school’s gymnasium, spinning high above the other projects and turning into one of the morning’s main attractions.

It was the handiwork of Jacob Huttula, a fifth-grader who spent weeks putting the project together only to see it falter somewhat that morning. The wheel would spin and pick up water, but the gearbox was not activating to fuse the light bulb. Jacob guessed — hypothesized, in science fair parlance — that the problem was located at the wheel’s axle.

“It got wet and the axle unglued itself,” he said. “The whole axle used to spin, which generated that gearbox, which will give that light bulb power.”

For Minor, that concise explanation was an example of what makes the science fair worthwhile.

“In some ways,” Minor said, “the best part of his (project) is the light is not going on and he knows why.”

Much of the work for these projects, according to Minor, was “home-based.” Participation in the fair was not mandatory, so students with an interest were expected to work at home with their families.

Stafford parent Scott Rumsey had two children — fourth-grader Nate and second-grader Katie — in the fair, both showing off the work they had done with model rockets over the course of about two months. Rumsey, a scientist himself who works as a marine biologist at the National Marine Fishery Service, is not shy about pushing his children toward projects like these. But it doesn’t take much prodding when the guidelines are so open-ended.

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Riley Schreiber demonstrates the Bernoulli Effect.“It’s pretty easy for them to find something they’re interested in,” Rumsey said. “And then the neat thing about the science fair is you can help teach them how to ask questions and then figure out how to collect data.”

Katie was interested in learning simply about how model rockets functioned, while Nate sought to find out which rockets performed the best in terms of height and velocity. The tests, then, consisted mostly of shooting countless rockets into the air and using an altimeter to measure their performance.

“Mostly it was just fun,” Rumsey said. “We talked about what the questions would be, what will we do to answer the questions.”

While the Rumseys looked to the sky, fifth-grader Justin LeBlanc kept his focus at the ground level. His project centered around the concept of powering cars with kinetic energy, a process he demonstrated by repeatedly pressing down on a switch buffered by Legos, which in turn powered a small toy car forward.

“Basically it generates electricity using electromagnetic inductions,” Justin said. “I was thinking of putting these all on the road and stuff, so when the car drives over it, it would get a short speed boost and it would go to the next one. So the car wouldn’t need to use any gas.”

Justin’s teacher, Tzaddi Bondi, looked at his work with genuine awe.

“His is just incredible,” Bondi said. “It just makes me feel like we should be doing this more, actually, because you get to see them in such a different way. ... You may never know really just how interested they are in something like this until you give them an opportunity.”by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Wilfred Lim, on left, fifth grade, demonstrates how the force of the surface tension of the water in the bottle is stronger than that of the force of gravity exerted on the pingpong ball.

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