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The laws of science, biology, technology and engineering were on full display at the Los Alamos County Science Fair Saturday, as students proudly stood by their projects, eagerly answering any question the judges as well as the public had for them.
There were 275 projects on display, all diverse and interesting.
Want to know how sunlight is converted into electricity? How our immune system can do a better job at fighting cancer? What’s the best conductor of electricity? If you walked the halls of Los Alamos High School Saturday, you’d know the answers to these questions, and more.
If you stopped by sixth grade Pinon Elementary student Sasha Dolin’s exhibit, you’d also definitely find out at what temperature chocolate begins to melt.
“My mom makes chocolates all the time, and I kept thinking what I was going to be doing for my project,” she said.
So she put the question to her mother one day, and a pretty fascinating, if not delicious, science project was born. Turns out, no one knew exactly, so Dolin mapped out an experiment that involved charts and graphs detailing exactly what’s happening when a solid starts to transform itself into a liquid by way of heat.
Barranca Elementary student Katelyn Crockett was looking online one day for a project when she came across the process of electrolysis. Curious, she asked her parents about it and they set up a little experiment demonstrating it, and she was hooked. She then proceeded to put in hours of work designing her own experiment.
“I wanted to learn more,” she said. Her experiment was tested for the electrical conductivity of many different materials, including lemon juice and salt. The results: “Lemon juice is a really poor electrolyte and salt is one of the best electrolytes,” she said.
According to District Science Fair Coordinator Dawn Brown, all of the schools, including the middle school and high school, were represented in this year’s fair, as well as home-schooled students and those from the Montessori schools. Overall, there were 274 exhibits in this year’s fair.
Science Fair Committee member Andy Erickson noted the science fair’s main purpose is to expose students to science, as well as further their studies in S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and math). Sometimes, students start on their next project right after the last science fair, and they are also allowed to continue studying their subject and presenting their findings right up until their last year of high school, allowing for deeper, more enriching study of a discipline of their choosing.
“When it comes to science, technology, engineering and math, in a town like Los Alamos, we at least want them to have a basic understanding of these subjects,” Erickson said.
Brown said that as technology and science make our everyday world ever more complex, science fairs are more important than ever.
“We hope they spark an interest in science and technology,” she said. “Our lives now pretty much revolve around some form of science or technology, whether that’s environmental science, plant science, animal science, computer science, engineering or other disciplines.”
There are 17 categories students can present in at the fair.
Fourth and fifth graders were allowed to do their own individual projects.
Grades sixth through eighth made up the Junior Division, and grades nine through 12 made up the Senior Division.
Eighty members from the community volunteered as judges as well as another 50 as “specialty” judges.
Students are judged on the thought that went into the project, and that can either include a hypothesis or, if it’s an engineering concept, the approach. Presentation skills, and creativity also are judged.
Dr. Gene Schmidt, the superintendent of schools for Los Alamos Public Schools, was one of the judges. He said he was glad to do his part.
“The opportunity to be a judge is an incredible experience. It gives you a chance to interact with students and learn more about their science passions,” he said. “I’m also amazed at the wide variety interests of the students and just how well they understand the importance of their work.”
All of the judges work as a team to pick the best projects from those 17 categories, and out of those, one “best-of-show” for life science and another for physical science for each division is selected.
The event is sponsored by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, as well as a group of other businesses and community organizations, including C.B. Fox, the Los Alamos National Bank, Los Alamos Kiwanis, Los Alamos Elks Lodge 2083, Northern New Mexico Consortium, assorted school parent-teacher organizations and associations, the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee and others. The groups contributed between $500 and $5,000 for the cash awards, as well as t-shirts, gift certificates and other mementos that are included in their award packets.
Senior Division students who either get a first, second, third or honorable mention in their category qualify to go to the regional fair in Las Vegas, N.M. March 8.
At that fair, the high school students can then qualify to go to the international fair.
“New Mexico sends about 16 students every year to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in May. This year, it takes place in Los Angeles,” said Erickson.
“It’s a pretty big deal. Most of the senior students will spend hundreds of hours working on their projects.” He added the international fair includes $4 million in prize money.