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Spotlight on Los Alamos: Students to represent the Hill at international event

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By Kirsten Laskey

In garages and in nature, two Los Alamos High School students recently spent months testing their scientific knowledge. What they created only few have seen or even imagined.Now, high school junior Caroline Wurden and freshman Alexander Kendrick are sharing their discoveries not only with the country, but with the world.Both young scientists will participate in the International Science and Engineering Fair, to be held May 11-16 in Atlanta. The upcoming science fair is the largest international, pre-college science competition, annually providing a forum for more than 1,500 high school students from more than 40 countries to showcase their independent research. Students in ninth through 12th grade participate in the international event.To get to this point, Wurden and Kendrick participated in local, regional and state competitions. Dawn Brown, coordinator of the Los Alamos County Science Fair, explained Wurden and Kendrick first needed to place in the local science competition, held Jan. 26 at Los Alamos High School, before moving on to the regional science fair held March 8 at the New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M. During the regional competition, she said, students who placed first through third could advance to the state competition, which was held April 4-5 at New Mexico Tech. in Socorro.Brown said 164 students participated in the county science fair, 46 projects continued to the regional science fair and 18 students competed at the state level.Of those 18 students, she said, seven placed at state.Wurden and Kendrick not only placed, they captured the top awards. Wurden earned the grand-prize award and achieved first place in senior physics and astronomy for the senior division.Kendrick earned second place in engineering for the senior division.They were not the only Los Alamos students to be successful in the competition. Los Alamos Middle School student Nathan Clements earned first place in the junior division for behavioral and social science.Other students to place in the state competition were Aspen Elementary student Ariel Yik-Hoong Koh, Barranca Elementary School student Ethan Clements, Los Alamos Middle School student Naftali Burakovsky and Aspen Elementary student Daniel Ahrens.The project Kendrick presented during the science fair competitions was a low-frequency radio designed for cave and mine rescue.Caves, he explained have interested him for a while.“I’ve done science fair projects on caves since fourth grade,” Kendrick said.He pursued radios after learning that the National Park Service in Carlsbad was interested in using radios in caves.To design this radio, Kendrick said, he looked on the Internet for circuit designs and order parts from major electronic companies. He explained his radio is different from conventional ones because most are high frequencies and therefore cannot be used underground.Having a lower frequency, Kendrick said, “increases the rapidness of a rescue ... Using this is a lot easier and increases how fast it goes.”Wurden has shared her project with the world before. She and her project, “Great Balls of Fire,” traveled to the international science fair last year. As a result, she received an $8,000 U.S. Navy Scholarship and was awarded second place in the physics category.Her project recreates ball lighting in a lab, or her case, a garage. “And I haven’t blown up my garage yet,” she joked. “It’s still there.”She explained she was introduced to ball lighting, a phenomenon few have witnessed, after her father saw it two years ago.Wurden googled ball lighting and discovered that scientists in Berlin, Germany, had recreated it in a lab.As luck would have it, Wurden’s father knew the German scientists and she was able to travel to Berlin and visit their laboratory.Ball lighting, Wurden explained, is rare natural phenomenon, so therefore there isn’t a lot of data about it. She said it occurs during lighting storms and describes it as a “big, glowing ball of plasma.”She was interested in pursuing this project because if it is understood better, than people can be better protected from it.Since beginning this project in 2007, Wurden said she made some additions to her project. “Last year, I was learning how to make ball plasma and seeing the affects on characteristics (such as) color and size (in a lab setting),” she said.This year, she said she was trying to make ball lighting produced the lab similar to what is created in nature. Wurden said she wanted to make it bigger and longer lasting as well as study what happens when it is exposed to the air around it.Her project not only did well at the international fair last year, but it garnered the grand prize at the state fair, too.She may be a seasoned participant at the international event but it hasn’t quenched Wurden’s excitement. “This year I’m going to international again – I’m so excited,” she said.She is not the only one who is eager to attend. Kendrick said when he learned about his invitation to the international science fair, “I was really excited. I always wanted to go to international.”Wurden and Kendrick appear to be ready to represent Los Alamos; during the interview with the Monitor, they continually dispensed high-fives to one another and talked in earnest about their achievements. Going to the international fair “is such as rewarding experience,” Wurden said. “Last year, I got to talk to Nobel laureates ... It was really cool.”They encourage other Los Alamos students to join the fun and participate in science fairs.“It isn’t as dorky or dumb as people may think it is,” Wurden said. “(You) can get scholarships (or) job opportunities. It’s really satisfying. It’s a lot of work but it is so worth it.”“It’s seems really hard at first,” Kendrick added, “but keep up with it … It’s nerve-racking but enjoyable at the same time.”Brown also encourages students to give science fairs a chance. She said a lot of students through sixth-grade attend the fairs but somewhere after sixth grade, the numbers drop.“Our goal next year is to increase middle school and high school participants,” Brown said.To achieve this Brown and LAPS Curriculum Director Kate Thomas plan to establish a Mentors Club. They are encouraging adult artists, scientists, etc., to help mentor young people.The goal, Brown said, is that is will help students and take pressure off the teachers.Support from the community does reap rewards. Wurden said she received a lot of support from Los Alamos and Kendrick noted Los Alamos National Laboratory employees are a great resource for any questions.