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Teens tackle real-world problems for Science Symposium

From germs to teeth, from lasers to pseudomonas aerunginosa (don't worry, most people don't know what that is) and even hamsters, teens at West Linn High School and all across the school district are testing their theories and making discoveries.

The district-wide CREST-Jane Goodall Science Symposium is Friday, March 9, at West Linn High School.

Schools all across the district have been holding science and inquiry fairs, all culminating at the symposium.

At the high school level, students have been working on their projects all year, some putting in unimaginable hours.

At West Linn High School, 175 students are submitting projects to the symposium, which is in its 10th year. Students who participate do so on their own free time and are responsible for their projects from beginning to end.

Amy Schauer, a science advisor at CREST (Center for Research in Environmental Sciences and Technologies), spends a large majority of the school year working with the district high school students with their projects.

'We are aiming for real-world science experience,' said Schauer.

The first step is developing a project is figuring out a topic, which then has to pass Schauer's 'So what' test. 'Why do we need to know this?' she asks each student of his or her topic.

Then the students conduct their background research to learn what has already been discovered, the problems, the challenges and the history.

The long process of writing, revising, writing and revising the plan comes next.

'We want them thinking about procedures and risks,' said Schauer.

The students get feedback from her and other teachers during this phase of fine-tuning their projects.

Finally, the students get to start experiments. The experiments range in difficulty and time involvement.

Schauer said she enjoys working with the Science Symposium students because 'in any given day I get to think about physics, microbiology … I get to engage with so many interesting topics and interesting students. I can't think of anything better than that. I learn something new every day.'

One motivated and inspired student is Spencer Chang, a senior at WLHS. He chose to continue and refine his work from last year on antibiotic resistant bacterium.

As a freshman he got involved in microbiology and biomedicine, which is a relatively new field.

'It's one of the most important areas we should be looking at,' said Chang, stressing the need for humans to stay healthy.

When he attended the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) as a sophomore, Chang was inspired by the number of students who were doing amazing things despite their age.

'Regardless of your education, your background, your age, we are all capable of anything,' he said.

The experience motivated Chang to push himself. He is studying pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium that causes disease in humans and animals, especially those with weak or compromised immune systems like those with AIDS or cystic fibrosis.

Chang is looking at ways to treat infection by studying quorum sensing, the way bacteria communicate with each other.

Chang spends about five to six hours a day at an OHSU lab conducting his research. He has had a difficult time getting good advice since few scientists locally are even working on the issue, making him a true pioneer in the field.

Freshman Tesa Breault has learned a lot about preseverving through failures and how experiments are more about what goes wrong than right during her project.

Breault is studying the circadian rhythms of hamsters and how being in a social setting versus being isolated affect sleep cycles.

She separated hamsters into five cages, three cages with just one hamster and two cages with three hamsters. She then set up video infrared cameras to record the hamsters' sleep and wake cycles. She started adjusting the times of day so it was light longer and watched how long it took the hamsters to adjust, similar to humans and jetlag.

She found the social hamsters adjusted much faster to the time changes than the isolated hamsters.

In order to find her results, Breault watched hours and hours of hamster video, had three hamsters escape and three get sick and die.

Perhaps the most challenging part of sophomore Renee Layoun's project was allocating human teeth from dentists.

Layoun studied how teeth whiteners, like lasers that use UVA light, affect human teeth by damaging the dentin.

'I like choosing projects where a lot of people may benefit from it,' said Layoun. 'Science interests me. I love science and math.'

Last year, Layoun focused on how hydrogen peroxide-based whiteners damage teeth.

On a lighter side, Layoun's brother, Kevin, experimented with the five-second rule - that food is safe to eat off the ground as long as it's picked up before five seconds.

His findings - don't even think about eating it. 'It's pretty disgusting.'

He conducted his testing in the high school cafeteria by placing a sterilized marble on the floor and then putting it in a petri dish to see if any bacteria grew.

Two other students, Melanie Martinsen and Shana Feltham, are working to develop a laser to eradicate bacterium, specifically MRSA, a contagious staph bacteria. Because that bug is too dangerous to work with, the girls are working in a lab and practicing on E. coli.

Many other projects from students of all grades will be on display at the Science Symposium. The doors open at 5:30 p.m.

Visitors can browse the projects and partake in the hands-on discovery center with new displays from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Flir Systems.

The symposium will be keynoted by Professor Kellar Autumn, local super-scientist from Lewis and Clark College, at 7:30 p.m.

An awards ceremony will be held at 8:30 p.m. There are seven categories of awards to be given at the Science Symposium along with a variety of special awards.

The Science Symposium is affiliated with the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) fair. Several students from the Science Symposium will advance to this level, which is highly competitive.

Schauer said more than $1 million worth of scholarships has been offered to district students through the fair and their projects.



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