Scientists and engineers get their day in the sun at Bromfield Science Fair

Even before walking in the door, visitors to the Science Fair, held Friday, March 8, were greeted by a 9-foot-tall rocket and by two budding aerospace engineers, whose stratospheric enthusiasm for rocketry could not have been more appropriate for their subject. Indeed, enthusiasm for science and engineering was obvious everywhere at the fair.

The projects were exhibited inside the Bromfield gymnasium, which was temporarily repurposed from student athletics to student science. Brimming with scientific excitement, and looking very much like a poster session at any academic conference, the science fair counted no fewer than 71 student displays. Projects ranged across all the scientific disciplines taught at Bromfield: Not only were there projects from the traditional trio of physics, chemistry, and biology, but also from environmental science, biochemistry, psychology, computer science, and engineering.

Melanie Bodtman shows judge Bill Berthoud some electronics from her project, “A View Inside Computers.” (Photos by Lisa Aciukewicz)

Freshman Isabella Kelley-Munoz describes her project to judge Mary Arata.

The March 8 science fair drew from students in grades 8 through 12. As science teacher Deb Pierce explained it, Bromfield will hold two science fairs this year, with sixth- and seventh-graders awarded their own event March 20. Having a separate event for the younger grades is intended to take away some of the stress of presentation, said Pierce. It’s all in the spirit of encouraging scientific presentations from even Bromfield’s most novice scientists. Furthermore, the middle school fair will be adjudicated in house by high school students, bringing the whole experience full circle.

Encouragement toward participation in the fair comes in many ways at Bromfield. There is, of course, the verve of the science faculty, which facilitates student projects. In addition, said Pierce, the curriculum mandates participation by students in AP science classes, as does membership in the Science National Honor Society. While grades and honors may provide a bit of a nudge, they do not tell the whole story. Bromfield’s young science fair presenters are clearly in it primarily for the love of science. And it’s not just a one-off, notes ninth-grade physics teacher Jackie Travers: “They tend to be the kids who’ve done it in the past.”

Science spoken here

Walking out onto the floor of the Bromfield gym, one can’t help seeing this love of science in full display. And not just the love of science as an engaging activity, but a full appreciation of the methods of science, and an embrace of the hypothesis testing that drives progress in science and engineering.

Logan Houston plays guitar to demonstrate his experiment “Visualizing Soundwaves from an Electric Guitar Pedal.”

The display for 12th-grader Hannah Taylor’s biofuels efficiency project, for instance, read like a condensed version of a scientific article. From abstract through hypothesis, procedure, data reporting, and analysis, Taylor’s presentation captured the essence of a scientific publication. And the judges agreed, awarding her the blue rosette for high school projects, along with a number of other awards. (See the vignettes below for more of the story on Taylor’s project.)

At a nearby table, Anaïs Caro, a 12th-grader, presented her work on disinfectants and bacterial growth. Caro sought to determine how much the concentration of disinfectants inhibited bacterial growth. She cultured E. coli bacteria in petri dishes, exposing each culture to a different concentration of a household disinfectant. An interesting outcome was that lower concentrations of the disinfectant were just as likely to inhibit growth as less-diluted concentrations. There are practical implications for this line of work, since excess use of disinfectants may lead to bacteria becoming resistant: “If the bacteria develop resistance, then the products are no longer effective,” said Caro.

“Do You Really Want to Touch That?” asks Holly Fisher (right). Not if it’s the sink handles in the eighth-grade girls’ bathroom, she tells judges Terry Symula (left) and Don Siegrist. The sink handles were the dirtiest location in the school, with the most bacteria of all the areas Fisher sampled.

Science gets personal

A similar experimental setup was used by seniors Chloe Cushing and Sage McFarland. But in a project of personal interest to adolescents, what they grew were not E. coli, but acne-related bacteria. Displaying a bottle of suspiciously unappealing fluid, Cushing noted that it contained a solution of bacteria that had been swabbed off McFarland’s facial pores. These scientists’ goal? To determine whether daily skin cleansers were as effective at killing bacteria as acne-specific products that contain salicylic acid and similar chemicals. They cultured McFarland’s sample on agar and exposed the samples to filter blots imbued with both kinds of cleanser. Their conclusion? “I’m going to start using salicylic acid,” said Cushing, revealing that acne-specific cleansers indeed performed as claimed.

Shaan Patel rides a homemade Segway robot using PID (proportional integral derivative) controllers as his Science Fair partner, Sawyer Madison, watches.

Another experiment with personally applicable results was presented by senior chemists Kiersten Niland and Brianna Carlisle. They investigated the concentration of electrolytes in various beverages that might be used after exercise. Electrolytes, said Niland, are primarily negatively charged minerals, adding that her marathoner mother credits their consumption with reducing the typical post-marathon energy crash. The chemists assessed electrolyte concentration in a sports drink, water, and orange juice. They did so by measuring electrical conductance, a highly correlated property. To their surprise, orange juice had the highest electrolyte concentration, followed by water, with the sports drink coming in last. Carlisle, a year-round athlete, will be taking this conclusion to the spring lacrosse season, where she will switch from sports beverages to water.

Survey projects

In addition to experimental projects involving petri dishes and their methodological kin, this year’s science fair had a good number of educational displays reporting on survey papers. Of the students who had survey posters, physics teacher Travers noted, “I was glad they got to do educational displays, to give them other options to participate.”

Among these survey projects, 10th-grader Vivian Liu presented the pros and cons of GMO foods. “Nowadays, everyone is becoming a lot more aware of the GMO controversy,” said Liu, who looked at the issues from health, environmental, and economic perspectives. The topic is nuanced, since some GMO organisms have positive outcomes in increasing the nutritional content of foods, while others, corn in particular, are implicated in environmental degradation due to herbicide runoff.

From left: Science Fair partners Jack Yu and Nishkal Pisal explain their project, “Nuturitional Value in Hydroponics vs. Traditional Soil-based Growing,” to judge Jim Adelson.

Nicole Lemieux, a 12th-grader, presented a survey of the scientific literature on food allergies. Central to the issue are the questions of what causes food allergies, and what can be done to eliminate them in the future. Lemieux noted that there are as yet no clear answers in the literature, but that the problem is prevalent in the United States, and growing, with nearly 8 percent of American children exhibiting some kind of food allergy.

Python, Python, everywhere

It is often said that the millennial generation was the first to grow up with computers as a household appliance. If so, the current generation will be the first to grow up fluent in programming languages like C and Python.

Python was the language of choice for Arjun Khurana’s project on neural networks. Pointing to a network diagram looking somewhat like a tangled plate of pasta and meatballs, Khurana described neural computation as being essentially “a really big linear algebra machine.” Using the open source Tensorflow package, he applied the neural framework to predict breast cancer. All the linear algebra, he said, is used to weigh features of tumor cells, such as their size or texture. By training the network from a data set of measured tumor cells, he was able to achieve an accuracy of 94.5 percent in classifying cells as benign or malignant.

Khurana is largely self-taught as a programmer, and so is Annelise Anderson, an eighth-grader who presented a project using the OpenCV Python tools. Anderson demonstrated a vision-based grocery scanner that didn’t just scan barcodes, but read the name of the product right from the label.

Beyond Bromfield

The science fair has always been about providing an event around which to crystalize all that the students have learned in their studies, and to point them to where a future in science may lie for them. Bromfield science teacher Julie Burton sums it up best: “It’s a wonderful thing. By the time they get to 12th grade, they really understand the science process, and we send them off to college with a great foundation.”


Hannah Taylor: Biofuel efficiency

“I was testing whether organic fuels are comparable in efficiency to fossil fuels,” said 12th-grader Hannah Taylor in introducing her project. Taylor studied a range of fuels, including corn-derived ethanol (a biofuel), vegetable oil, kerosene, and diesel, as well as blends of several of these fuels. What she found was encouraging in regard to potential alternatives to polluting fuels like diesel and kerosene. She set each fuel alight and measured the temperature of the resulting burn, as well as its duration. As it turned out, not only did biofuel burn nearly as hot as its fossil fuel counterparts, but it succeeded in doing so longer. Pointing to a display of cotton pads that had captured emissions from the burns, Taylor went on to note that while the diesel and kerosene burns produced sooty residues, biofuel burned clean and left the pads essentially spotless. “The implications are interesting,” noted Taylor, “because you can see that you could really use this in a vehicle.” Taylor won the high school blue rosette for her work.


Shaan Patel and Sawyer Madison: Impacts of PID tuning on a self-balancing robot

As with any truly scientific paper, it was hard to tell what these students accomplished from their project title. In short they built a Segway. The project started as a much smaller self-balancing platform: a 6-inch board with two motorized wheels and a rat’s nest of electronics. Included in the circuitry is an electronic gyroscope. The gyroscope detects deviations from the vertical and passes these measurements to an Arduino microcontroller. The controller applies a so-called PID model to calculate corrections that rotate the wheels and bring the model back to a vertical stance. As Patel and Madison explained it, the model considers three factors: the value of the angle from the vertical (the proportional factor, the P in PID), as well as the integral of that value over time (I), and its instantaneous derivative (D). The model, which is based on an open source library, weighs each factor independently to arrive at the motor corrections.It’s these weight factors that Patel and Madison had to identify experimentally to get the model to work. Once they had that, the platform balanced itself, and the next step was obvious: Scale it up to a human scooter, a home-built Segway. This work won the blue rosette for middle school.


Safiya Ali: Visual field testing for glaucoma patients

Senior Safiya Ali demonstrated a computer application she had written to test glaucoma patients for loss of peripheral vision. Glaucoma is a debilitating disease, she noted, and it affects 60 million individuals worldwide, with 3 million in the United States alone. Glaucoma causes pressure to build up in the eye, which in turn degrades the optic nerve, causing increasingly tunneled vision. A self-taught Python programmer, Ali designed a system that displays a beach ball moving in from the edge of a pair of screens. Patients placed their chins on an improvised chin rest (a blot of Post-it notes on a stand), and clicked a mouse button when they first detected the moving ball. Over the course of several ball trajectories, the system establishes the patient’s field of vision. By deploying the project on widely available home computers, Ali sees her work as an inexpensive and easily accessible tool, one that could be used for more frequent testing to ascertain progress of the disease and effectiveness of its treatment. “Cheaper and more accessible means should be in place for patients to take control of the disease,” she concluded.


The Bromfield Aerospace Rocket Club

Standing in front of a bevy of flying rockets, including a 9-foot behemoth, ninth-grader Marley Roy and senior Jake Rahman expounded on the engineering subtleties of their flying machines. Fiberglass is used to reinforce the body and the edges of each rocket stage, they explained. “The harness is made of Kevlar,” said Roy, pointing to the folded parachute in the body of the large rocket. That the harness is made of the same material as bulletproof vests is all one needs to know about the forces that these rockets are subjected to. But our student rocketeers don’t just build rockets. They carefully enter all their key properties in rocket-modeling software, which they then use to predict the height their rockets will reach. How well did predictions match actual test flights? “It worked,” said Roy. The students are mentored by Bromfield faculty Julie Burton and Christine Zackerer. Bromfield is one of only three high schools affiliated with the National Association of Rocketry. “It is a very rare thing, and a great addition to the STEM program,” said Burton.

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