In the name of science

Susan
Susan Flanagan
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For two months one winter, french fries in various states of decay lined my ceramic tile countertop. It was a disgusting display of fermentation that I not only put up with but encouraged.

The home fries cut from local potatoes got mouldy first, swampy green fungus spreading like fat fingers over the starchy surface. Not long after, Big R’s fries followed suite, a seaweedy shade of green slowly expanded beyond the potato borders. With the other fast-food fries, however, nothing really happened visually. The McDonald’s fries got harder, but looked as pristine on Day 45 as they did an hour out of the fryer. Ditto for Dairy Queen.

No prizes were won in the science fair that year, but the children all learned something from this experiment.

With two children in university and two in high school, the Flanagan household has seen its share of science fair experiments. We’ve had potato-powered clocks — in fact I think we still may have one in the closet.

We’ve observed how long it takes teeth — all originating from the same person (baby teeth; we didn’t knock any out for the experiment) — to disintegrate in various substances.

That was not the end of corrosion experiments in our household.

Another year No. 1 learned a lesson when he decided to investigate whether nails would disintegrate quicker in some substances than others. The lesson: don’t get your carpenter uncle to supply the nails. Not knowing their purpose, he provided the toughest, industrial grade, galvanized steel nails available in North America. No vinegar or Coke or battery acid was going to make a mark on those nails.

As for my participation in science fairs, I like to help out with acquisition of materials (see sourceing nails, above) but generally I take the sink-or-swim approach. I’ll offer up my counter space, but as for the results, the children are on their own.

At any kind of school fair, be it science or heritage, the level of parent participation is usually pretty obvious.

Red flags go up amongst teachers and judges when projects are dazzling, but students have trouble answering basic questions about what went on in the experiment.

This year the Eastern District High School Science Fair is April 11-12. We are lucky here on the Avalon and Burin peninsulas as science fairs in Labrador, western and central Newfoundland have all gone into hibernation due to lack of funding or volunteers.

Geography poses challenges as well. This means that a potentially award-winning student in Happy Valley or Deer Lake doesn’t even have a chance to compete in their regional fair.

This is unfortunate.

Some of the science fair projects produced recently would blow you away. Like Jared Trask and Kaitlyn Stockley who looked at antifreeze proteins in fish waste and the potential of producing biofuels from this byproduct.

Or Gabrielle Molloy and Rebecca Casey, who looked at the effects of coconut oil on Alzheimer’s disease.

Or Hannah Boone and Megan Howse, who used a green tea extract to help fight arteriosclerosis. Once these students get a taste of proper research and the results, they are keener to continue with science studies. Last year Hannah Boone went on to win the regional science fair using a green tea extract to help fight breast cancer.

Conducting such in-depth experiments requires more than counter space, however. Some students are lucky enough to participate in a program called Sanofi BioGenius Challenge (which involves partnering university mentors with high school students to do high-level research. (See http://sanofibiogeneiuschallenge.ca/)

Keen science students often move on to the Canada-wide national science fair and have the chance to earn lots in prize money and scholarships.

MUN student Anna O’Grady was recently awarded a scholarship to complete a six-week research internship at Yale in Connecticut this summer for her work on galaxy clusters.

 We haven’t had anything so dramatic as galaxy clusters in our house yet, but No. 1 did just win a scholarship based on an essay he wrote on water systems.

Right now at the junior high level, there is no requirement in the eastern region for students to do a “science fair-type project” like there was in the past.  

Ten per cent of a student’s mark is for a science project, but what constitutes a science project is left up to the individual school’s (and sometimes teacher’s) discretion.

That means some schools have abandoned the school science fair completely.

But in other schools, like

St. Paul’s, all Grade 7s do an experimental project which they present at the school science fair, which follows guidelines laid out in Youth Science Canada (www.youthscience.ca/).   

So next time your lovely junior high school child plants something grotesque on your counter, or if she announces that she wants to investigate whether escalator railings contain more bacteria than toilet seats at the mall, smile and say, “That’s great honey.”

Be happy that your darling’s school still encourages science. Maybe one day she’ll be kissing you goodbye as she heads off to an Ivy League university to do research.

Or maybe you’ll be watching her on You Tube doing science experiments in space. You never know.   

If you’d like to check out this year’s Eastern Newfoundland Science and Technology Fair, the public is welcome to visit displays at Bishops College this coming Saturday, April 12 from 10 a.m. to noon.

The 2014 Burin Peninsula Science Fair took place March 14 in Lawn with two students, overall winner Nicole Herridge and runner-up Jarod Farrell, moving on to compete at the Canada-wide National Science Fair in Windsor, Ont.o, May 10.

Herridge investigated driving distractions, while Farrell applied science to Super Mario.

Susan Flanagan is an artsy fartsy who once tried unsuccessfully to mummify wieners in a home-made pyramid for a science fair at Holy Heart. She can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca

Organizations: Bishops College, Sanofi BioGenius Challenge, Ivy League

Geographic location: Newfoundland, North America, Canada Happy Valley Deer Lake Connecticut St. Paul Windsor

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