Amazing Students Yet Again

Today was the 2010 California State Science Fair. As in past years, I was the panel chair for the Jr. Math and Software Panel, as well as being a Project of the Year judge.

Math and Software. This year, we ended up with 13 project in the panel. We ended up with six (6) judges, after some perturbations (we had six to start, lost two, gained one, he cancelled at the last minute, and the two we lost ended up on the panel). Every year seems to have a themes: some years it is programming, other years there are loads of projects on π (pi). If there was a theme this year on projects, it was games. We had projects on Conway’s Life, Connect Four, Yahtzee, Chess, and Risk. The winner ended up being the project on Conway’s Life. This 8th grader programmed Life in for both Flash and iPhone platforms, including parameterizing it so different rules could be tried… and came up with a better variation on the rules than Conway’s. He also understood the cellular automata basis behind the game. I’ve heard you can find his app in the iPhone store! Second place was a fellow who implemented a program that calculated the best starting position for Risk. His program was written in Java and well parameterized, making it easy to adapt to other Risk variants. Third place was a C program that played Connect Four, which included a seven-level look-ahead to choose moves. Fourth place wasn’t a game: it was a project on Kaprekar Numbers which explored patterns in the iterations to reach Kaprekar Constants. The honorable mention was a fellow who found some interesting issues related to random Fibonacci sequences.

Project of the year. This is always interesting: we get to see the best projects in each category. Some of my favorites were:

  • Junior Biochemistry/ Molecular Biology: “Effects of 3-Membered Heterocycle-Derived dTTP Analogs on the Inhibition of Nucleic Acid Polymerases Using Docking”. This was a project by an 8th grader, whose knowledge of chemistry amazed the PhDs on the panel. To give you an idea, here’s her objective: “The objective was to determine the inhibitory effects of novel three-membered heterocyclic compound-derived analogs on several nucleic acid polymerases in silico using molecular docking.”. Her findings? “Several potential inhibitors have been identified through this experiment: for DNA polymerase kappa, Ligand 102 with a binding energy of -6.09 kcal/mol; for HCV NS5B polymerase, Ligand 35 with a binding energy of -5.67 kcal/mol; and for HIV reverse transcriptase, Ligands 15 and 96 with a binding energy of -6.03 kcal/mol. The majority of ligands had a greater binding affinity than the control ligand, dTTP. Analysis of data found that three-membered rings increased binding affinity through both hydrophobic interactions and through an extensive network of hydrogen bonds. The decreased steric repulsion of three-membered rings relative to the five-membered rings of dTTP also contributed to increased binding affinity.” Yeah, I have no idea what this means either, other than it deals with developing medicines for HIV.
  • Junior Microbiology: “A Conductometric Biosensor for the Detection of Food-Borne Pathogens”. Another 8th grader. Her project was developing a rapid (30 minute) test for salmonella that could be used in the field. How did she do it? “First, I built a conductometric biosensor by preparing the individual membranes of the biosensor and placing them over a copper wafer fabricated on a microscope slide. I serially diluted a liquid culture of Salmonella enterica from 10^6 to 10^1 CFU/ml. I applied the sample to the application pad of the biosensor and recorded the resistance at 15 sec, 30 sec, 1 min, 2 min, and 3 min intervals. I also tested the biosensor with a mixed culture of Staphylococcus epidermidis and Salmonella. For the FDA method, I plated each concentration of Salmonella onto McConkey plates and incubated overnight. The conductometric biosensor showed significant resistance reductions from about 10 K-ohms (negative control of broth) to 2-3 K-ohms from the concentrations 10^3 to 10^6 CFU/ml, confirming the presence of Salmonella. At concentration of 10^2 CFU/ml, only one sample showed a decrease in resistance; the other sample showed resistance above that of the negative control sample. During the mixed culture experiment, the biosensor could detect Salmonella even in the presence of non-target antigens.”
  • Junior Electronics & Electromagnetics: “The Levitating Train”. This 7th grader devised an experiment to achieve the process of YBCO superconductors steadily levitating above a track of neodymium magnets when cooled using liquid nitrogen, as well as testing how much the amount of the liquid nitrogen effects the levitation height of two YBCO superconductors mounted on a small balsa wood box (the train).
  • Junior Product Science (Physical):The Effect of Reusable Bag Type on Tensile Strength, Liquid Retention, Stability, Washability, Compactness, and Capacity”. After this 8th grader’s mom plastic bag broke, spilling milk, she investigates what was the strongest type of reusable bag, including building her own tensile strength rig. Her method? “Seventeen reusable grocery bags were collected, which varied in fabric, make, and design. These bags were tested to determine if they would withstand the maximum 30 lb. weight given in tensile strength (machine used), retain liquid without leaking, be stable in a moving automobile, wash without wear to the bag, compact into a small form, and have a great capacity. These aspects were individually investigated through six in-depth tests. Tensile Strength: 100 lifts each, with varying weight loads, 5 trials. Liquid Retention: 57 grams of liquid in each bag, 15 minute duration, 5 total trials. Stability: 10 defined maneuvers in a moving vehicle, avg. 1:12 min each. Washability: wash and dry per instructions, 5 trials. Compactness: 8 different size drink cups, bags compacted to fit with lid secured. Capacity: 6 distinct trials, different grocery item groupings.” Her findings: “The three leading reusable grocery bags were the iTySE Ripstop Bag, the OBOE Pongee Poly Bag, and the ACME Bag Earthtote.”

Mind you: this was Junior division work. Impressive kids—think about this when you hear about the poor quality of California’s schools and kids. Our kids can do great… if we just give them the opportunity!