The science of solving problems sends students to big Intel science fair

Created on Monday, 28 March 2016 14:09. | Written by Teresa Carson. |

Austin Gardner carried out a complicated behavioral science project evaluating the relationship between students getting college information and whether they end up going to college.
As judges moved from project to project in the Gresham High School gym on a recent Friday, dozens of high school students nervously fidgeted in front of the cardboard presentations of their high-level science projects.

The stakes were high.

Winners would move beyond this regional event to the state science fair and some to the ultimate student science contest in the country, the Intel International Science Fair and Expo.

Three students, including one from Gresham High School, made the cut and in May are headed to the celebrated fair in Phoenix, the largest pre-college scientific research event in the world.

Austin Gardner, a Gresham High School senior, qualified to compete in the Intel event this year with his complex behavioral science project examining college attendance. Joining him from the Gresham expo are Nikhil Murthy from Catlin Gabel School and Chaitanya Karamchedu from Jesuit High School.

In addition to bragging rights of making it to the peak of school science in the country, $5 million in scholarships and awards are at stake at the international competition.

Eleven schools from the metro area participated in the Gresham expo. Student projects ranged from animal science and engineering to physics and astronomy.

Five Gresham High students are among the 22 moving from the Gresham Expo to the statewide Intel Northwest Science Expo, which will be held April 8 at Portland State University.

Sybil Kelley, assistant professor in Portland State University’s graduate school of education, noted students are taking a practical approach to their projects.

“Science fair projects have a very problem-solving focus,” she said. “Students are learning how to apply their knowledge and skills to real problems in the world.”

Gresham High School senior Denise Lopez took on a real world-oriented project on “Fish Passage Evaluation in the Johnson Creek Watershed.” She got interested in the issue when during an internship at the Johnson Creek Watershed Council.

Lopez located 169 culverts in the Johnson Creek Watershed area and measured them and evaluated them for how well they allowed salmon to pass through to spawn. She mapped them all, indicating their passage “grade.” She determined that 42 percent of the local culverts are not passable for migrating fish.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA – Denise Lopez surveyed and mapped 169 culverts in the Johnson Creek watershed to evaluate them on how well they allow fish passage. She will present her findings at the Northwest
But the expo is so much more than awards.

Science fair projects make the cross-curriculum connections that are key for high-level STEM education. “These science projects encapsulate what STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education is all about,” said Danelle Heikkila, assistant principal at Gresham High School. “They are multi-disciplinary.”

Gresham’s Austin Gardner also tackled a real-world problem with a complicated behavioral science project evaluating the relationship between students getting college information and whether they end up going to college. Gardner surveyed 330 students at Gresham High School and 120 students at Barlow High School. After a great deal of number crunching, analysis and evaluation, he concluded that there was a significant correlation between students having “college information literacy” and attending college.

“I had to teach myself the statistics” for the project, he said, because Gresham High does not have a statistics course.

Gardner, for example, found that fewer than 40 percent of students at Gresham High use the services of the college and career center.

“There is room to improve how students use these resources,” he said.

Giving the project even more real-world impact, Gardner plans to present to the school’s site council on ways students can better tap Gresham High’s college information resources. He has participated in the science expo for all four years of his high school career.

“I like the process of research. I just enjoy it,” he said.

Nathaniel Green, a senior at Gresham, did a project on evaluating whether a “maglev” — or magnetic levitation bridge — would be safer in an earthquake than traditional construction methods.

“What I was looking for is a bridge that will perform better in an earthquake,” he said, noting a big quake “is going to happen. It is just a matter of when.”

Kathy Childress, co-chairwoman of the expo and a Gresham High School teacher, was pleased with Gresham High’s performance and how the expo turned out.

“This was a successful fair for Gresham High School,” she said. “We competed against some of the top academic private schools in the region, and won our share of the awards.”

The science projects have inspired students to focus on their longer-term professional plans.

Green, who aspires to become an engineer and received an honorable mention in his category, said, “I like designing stuff and building stuff. This falls along the lines of what I want to do as a career.” He’s applied to several colleges and hopes to attend Portland State University.

Lopez, who picked up third place in her category, plans to work in environmental science or engineering and has been accepted at two highly-selective colleges, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Colorado College, as well as Oregon State University. She is waiting to see the financial aid packages each college offers to decide on where she’ll end up.

Gardner has applied to seven top-tier colleges including Stanford University and Harvard University. He is waiting to hear from all the schools and evaluate their financial aid packages before making a decision about where he will attend college.

Sybil Kelley of PSU noted the projects clearly enhance students’ passion for STEM subjects.

“The fairs are such a great way to bring science alive for students,” she said.

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