Special Event

Steve Carr

For more on the Harshman Middle School science fair, see Zachary Shields Web Only video: Web Extras

Two 6th graders are in the top 6 and explain their project to a panel of judges.

Last Thursday, Harshman Middle School held their science fair, an annual event that encourages students to light things on fire or blow them up or drink soda. Soda drinking was especially big this year, popping up in multiple experiments. Young people today are apparently very concerned about the effects that Mountain Dew might have on resting blood pressure.

All of the judges are volunteers and although the numbers will vary during the three sessions on the schedule there are 19 of us here early enough to catch the catered breakfast in the teachers' lounge which will be our base of operations for the day. There are several teachers from surrounding schools, a police officer and a handful of retirees. Six women,13 men.

Glenn Tuffnell, a former engineer for a Canadian mining company, is one of several representatives from the Executive Service Corps of Indiana, an organization that provides mentoring to students, encouraging their development in math and science. He doesn't hesitate to ask the students hard questions, but he is more eager to offer encouragement. "Keep taking the hard math classes," becomes his mantra for the day.

The kids have already gone through one round of elimination and the best projects, as selected by their science teachers, are set up on four long rows of tables in the southern half of the school auditorium. Brightly colored poster boards peppered with explanatory graphs, pictures and Petri dishes, have titles pasted across the top: Worm Salvation, Turtle Race, Rose Reaction, Pop Explosion, Greasy Burger, Color Attack, Candy Chromatography.

Bill Moore, a science teacher at Harshman and the science fair organizer, gives us our instructions: interview the students about their projects and then come to a consensus opinion with the other judges on which three projects from grades 6, 7 and 8 most deserve to advance to the regional science fair at the University of Indianapolis.

For the first round, the judges pair up and I am with Jim Larkin, 29, academic dean at the Leadership Academy at Arsenal Tech. Neither of us has much of a science background, but Jim's fiancé teaches AP Biology, Anatomy and Physiology at Franklin Community HS. That's something.

A couple hours later, after the larger group of judges affirmed our choices for the top three projects - an examination of the corrosive effects of acid rain, a look at the efficiency of different alternative fuel sources and a most enthusiastic look at how temperature impacts the ability of a basketball to bounce - we are well behind schedule, but much more confident in our ability to spot good science when we see it.

After a short break and some polite prodding from Moore to pick up the pace, we are back in the auditorium for the seventh graders. Three projects almost immediately separate themselves from the pack. Christine Gutierrez tested the abilities of different mouthwashes to kill bacteria. Leanne Bassi used Petri dishes to see if bacteria from chicken breasts grow faster at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Kristen Hamilton, who had a streak of red punctuating her otherwise sandy brown hair, wanted to see if Ph balances would affect the color of hair dyes. She chose Iguana Green, Purple Passion and Fire Engine Red. All three are chosen to advance to the regionals.

A lunch of sloppy joes and tater tots is waiting for us when we get back to the teachers' lounge, as is Mr. Moore, who is even more concerned because we have fallen even further behind schedule and the end of the day is looming. "I am telling you," he tells us, "at 2:30 when that bell rings, these kids are out of here."

My judging partner Jim can't wait that long. He has to be back at Arsenal Tech for the final bell and excuses himself. The remaining judges move quickly through the mélange of bouncing soccer balls, leaping skateboards and ants with their brains exposed. Two students have built a shallow clay model of the Atlantic Ocean basin into which they drop things to replicate meteors. A tennis ball falls into the water sending drops of water across Africa. "As you can see," they tell us, "it would cause mass destruction." Mercedes LaLand and Tori Sweat have kept their normally nocturnal hamster Corky awake during the day to see if it will cause a permanent change in his sleep patterns.

It doesn't, at least not in an obvious manner, but there are subtle differences and hopefully the same can be said for the students who invested so much time in their science fair projects. Learning, even about science, can be fun.


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