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Illustrations: Dave Klug



“ So many people in
my family smoke cigarettes...I wanted to show that [smoking] could affect their genetics, as well as themselves.”

– 13-year-old Brianna Wright, First Place Winner, PA Junior Academy of Science. Her project: testing the effects of cigarette smoke on fruit flies.































“ Time and time again, we see young people get energized and excited about careers in science and technology after being exposed to these types of informal learning experiences.”
- Jo Haas, Henry Buhl, Jr., Director of Carnegie Science Center


















Teen Scientists

If you think today’s young science buffs are building makeshift volcanoes, think again. They’re researching the dangers of second-hand smoke, building rockets, and developing mathematical models for designing safer skyscrapers.

Listening to Brianna Wright talk about her science experiment with fruit flies, it’s hard to tell which part was more difficult: being near them, or being cruel to them in the name of science.

“ My Dad kept saying, ‘I hope you don’t come back as a fly,’” says Wright. “I felt so bad for them!”

When Wright, a 13-year-old 8th grader at Sacred Heart Elementary School in Shadyside, chose to enter the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science’s (PJAS) regional science-project competition, it wasn’t by classroom mandate or parental edict. In fact, with only four entrants from her science class, Brianna had to face the ethical and “ick!” factors of fruit-fly management with very little in-class input. Instead, her mother, Lillian Wright, turned to someone she knew could help: Carnegie Science Center educator Mayada Mansour, who is program coordinator for the Mission Discovery education project, a collaboration between the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and Hill House Association in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

“ PJAS is something kids do completely on their own,” says Mansour, who acted as Brianna Wright’s mentor on the project. “Kids are intrinsically motivated to do science experiments. I just made sure she had the supplies she needed, and went through the steps to make her think a little deeper, to make sure her experiment didn’t have any holes in it.”

So, for 18 days earlier this year, the Wright’s Stanton Heights household played host to a few dozen unlikely visitors. Brianna’s fruit flies lived in vials on the Wright’s kitchen table, some happily whiling away their normal two-week lifespan, others subjected to daily clouds of cigarette smoke as Brianna tested the effects of the smoke on their genetics. Every day, she used a syringe to draw 10 ml. of smoke from the end of a lit cigarette and injected it into some of the vials. The results were as unpleasant as one might imagine: The lives of the flies subjected to cigarette smoke were cut short by days, and some of their offspring genetic mutations such as yellowed bodies and deformed wings.

“ So many people in my family smoke cigarettes,” Wright says, “my grandfather, aunts, and uncles. I wanted to show that it could affect their genetics, as well as themselves.” And while Grandpa hasn’t quit smoking, Wright did take first place in the PJAS zoology category, which meant a trip to State College for the statewide competition in May.

Brianna Wright’s fruit-fly experiment is just one example of the renaissance of an old educational stand-by: the science fair. In an age in which science and math are constantly bemoaned as slipping through the fingers of America’s youth, more and more educators see the value in teaching by real experimentation.

“ Science education is switching from worksheets and definitions into ‘get dirty and we’ll explain it at the end,’” says Mansour. “Science gives kids that ‘woah!’ at the end if they’re allowed to get messy and conduct experiments that really connect to their lives.”

And getting messy in the name of science can lead to bigger and better things, says Jo Haas, The Henry Buhl, Jr., Director of Carnegie Science Center. “Time and time again, we see young people get energized and excited about careers in science and technology after being exposed to these types of informal learning experiences,” she says. “Our goal is to engage young people and spark their curiosity—and then explain the scientific concepts behind the experiences.”

“007 Kind of Stuff”
Ang Li looks slightly overwhelmed. Standing in a packed club-level space in Heinz Field on a Friday in late March, Li—a quiet senior about to graduate from The Ellis School—is surrounded by a dozen onlookers, from math professors in elbow-patched tweed jackets to two camouflage-clad buzz cuts from the U.S. armed forces. “This is amazing,” whispers one of the soldiers, a 29-year-old Army scientist. “I’m working on something almost exactly the same as this!”

High-school senior Ang Li, a first-place winner at this year's Pittsburgh Regional Science & Engineering Fair at Carnegie Science Center, knocked the socks off a scientist from the U.S. Army with her "Application of Music in Cryptography."

At the Pittsburgh Regional Science & Engineering Fair (PRS&EF), an annual competition for area middle- and high-school students organized by Carnegie Science Center, there are plenty of projects that make one ask, “How old are you?” Since 1940, the PRS&EF has provided area kids the opportunity to work within the sciences —from biology and physics to computer science and robotics—on their own terms, but with a distinct competitive goal in mind.

And hundreds do: This year’s fair drew around 700 participants, shunning the vinegar-and-baking-soda volcano of yore in favor of projects studying, for example, “The Effects of Digitalis Purpurea Versus Reservatol on the Heart of Daphnia.” Maybe most impressively, in the leveling tradition of the sciences, high school’s rigid class structure falls apart once each student is standing, salesman-like, in front of his or her presentation. The popular kids may be more prone to studying the pH levels of makeup products, but they’re just as impressed by their neighbors’ videogame hand-eye coordination study, “Wanna Play Halo, Dude?” And just as anxious for the judge’s approval.

But perhaps no student produces the “you’re only in high school?!” response more than Ang Li’s “Application of Music in Cryptography.” Li’s project uses a computer to translate text into musical rhythms, using either Morse code or a randomly-assigned binary code-key system. It then takes whatever musical melody she inputs—in one case, Mozart’s Sonata No. 1—and arranges it into the coded text’s new rhythm. The result is a ream of sheet music which appears, even to the trained eye, as nothing more than a Mozart piano piece, but which actually contains a coded message: Her exemplary piece appears a benign series of quarter notes and rests, but actually contains Roger Bacon’s quote, “A man is crazy who writes a secret in any way other than one which will conceal it from the vulgar.” In addition to the attention of many of the Fair’s judges and visitors, Li’s project took first place in the Senior Computer Science/Math category.

Li doubts she’ll go on to study cryptography; she’s already taken a summer Intro to Cryptography course at the University of Pittsburgh and is considering going into medicine in college. She figures, though, that there will always be a part of her interested in music, math, and codes.

“ I like math, but I wanted to apply that knowledge somehow to the real world,” says Li. “And secret codes—it’s such 007 kind of stuff; very exciting!”

But medicine—that’s real-word stuff.

Competing to Build the Best Mousetrap
Just an aisle away from Li, Steven Florig’s project may not have placed in the finals of the Science Fair, but the 15-year-old Mount Lebanon High School freshman isn’t too worried. His “Rocket Nose Cone Drag Analysis” isn’t just for the competition—it’s part of his everyday life. He’s built and launched model rockets since he was six years old, and is now a member of the national Tripoli Rocketry Association, which helps him build high-powered rockets from scratch.

“ I got out of building things with kits a few years ago,” says Florig. “All my electronics and fins are now custom-built, but I want to start custom-building tubes and nosecones— that’s what this is for.”

Another project that garnered the interest of the buzz-cut brigade, Florig’s analysis won sponsor awards from the Army and Air Force, as well as from Westinghouse. But more importantly, perhaps, he’s learned which shapes of nosecones will work best on his rockets—and it’s that kind of hands-on experience, spurred by the incentive of competition, that seems to keep kids like Steven Florig interested in science.

“ Competitions provide a stimulus for this kind of project-oriented thinking,” says David Tomasic, director of the gifted-support program at Belle Vernon High School. Tomasic should know: His team of students won the 2005 Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, held in December as part of National Engineers Week.

David Tomasic's team from Belle Vernon High School took first place at last year's Rube Goldberg competition by using dominos, mousetraps, and a 15-pound rock to create a machine that could put toothpaste on a toothbrush.

Named for the Pulitzer-prize winning illustrator of bizarrely complex machinery, the contest demands that student teams design and build multi-step machines to perform simple tasks. The 2005 challenge: In a minimum of 15 steps, build a machine that puts toothpaste on a toothbrush. Belle Vernon’s machine included dominoes, mousetraps, and a 15-pound rock.

“ I use the competition to teach engineering principles, and one of those is that they must work in teams,” Tomasic explains. “Not everyone has all the right ideas; you have to trust other people’s work. We get a lot of ideas that are too difficult to do, and they have to ask, ‘will we get a return on this equal to our work input?’”

Tomasic sees competitions like the Rube Goldberg, the Pittsburgh Regional Science Fair, and PJAS as essential to motivating and exciting kids about science.

“ Competition stimulates thinking,” says Tomasic. “They can learn what’s out there, what others are doing, and what’s expected of them.”

Real-life Math
Harina Vin had something very personal in mind when she came up with the idea for a mathematics-based project in this year’s Regional Science Fair. And unlike some of her neighbors around Heinz Field that week, Vin hopes to continue working on her project— not as a hobby or an assignment, but as a part of her future.

“ My older sister is in medical school in Chicago,” says Vin, a 16-year-old 10th grader at Franklin Regional High School. “She’s moving into a high-rise apartment building, and after 9/11 and everything, I wanted to combine math, which I love, with evacuation.”

For “Evacuating a Building: A Mathematical Model,” Vin created a formula for determining the best way to evacuate a tall building within the two-hour window she discovered that fire departments estimate is the time it takes a building’s structural integrity to fail under massive trauma. Hers is a formula based on perfect-world circumstances: While using Pittsburgh’s USX Tower as an example, she tried to account for some human reactions—panic, slow reaction time—but couldn’t include many variables. And that bothers Vin.

“ I’d like to learn more about crowd density and add that in,” says Vin, whose project came in second to Li’s in the Senior Computer Science/Math competition. “How quickly people can move, bottlenecking at doorways; right now, I have people moving like robots.”

So Vin has begun researching crowd dynamics and social forces in order to refine and improve her formula, which she’d like one day to present to a university that can help her develop a working formula for determining the safest height and design of buildings based on their usage.

That such a formula may not exist already seems reason enough to thank the regional science fair circuit for keeping science, math, and engineering at the forefront of young peoples’ minds—inside and outside the classroom.

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