Students display questioning minds at science fair


Those who fear Chinese and Indian scientists and engineers will eclipse American ingenuity and leave this nation in an economic rubble heap needed only to visit the Rhode Island Science and Engineering Fair this weekend for a dose of youthful enterprise. This is not to say that the 318 students who made up the senior and junior divisions of the competition held at the Knight Campus of CCRI will end up inventing new sources of energy, discovering cures for diseases or designing future generations of the iPad, although some might.

Warwick Vets student Emily DiGiorgo is one of those who really isn’t that interested in science. Art is more to her liking. Yet she was standing by a display that detailed her efforts to determine what method of hair coloring lasts longest.

What prompted her to make that a science project?

Emily’s mother has worked in a hair salon and, as it turns out, her aunts were looking for an answer. That piqued Emily’s curiosity. She decided to find out.

Such inquisitiveness is just what is needed if this country, or for that matter this state, is going to compete in the global economy, believes Jason Dwyer, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island. Dwyer was one of the scores of judges who walked between exhibits and challenged students to defend their hypotheses and explain their projects.

The next generation of scientists and engineers, he said, can grow if there is a culture that promotes questioning. It’s not just science either.

“It’s reading and asking questions and engaging in the world around you,” he said. He sees sound answers as driven by scientific input and reasoning.

“We need to broadly educate,” he advocates.

Dwyer has been asking his own questions. He came to Rhode Island three years ago from Canada where he founded Insight Nanofluidics Inc., a company that is doing research of the application of simple cells in liquid and changing thinking on the qualities of water.

Mark Fontaine thinks improving the output of scientists and engineers will also take demanding more of students.

A teacher at the inner city TIMES² Academy in Providence and director of the fair, Fontaine said the impression is that the “science fair is fun and easy, but it’s not easy.” In one way, Fontaine sees the fair as running counter to expectations that desires are quickly satisfied and that nothing should be too difficult to achieve.

“We need to ask more of kids … I don’t think anything is wrong with kids. I don’t think we should accept less of kids, because if we do, they’ll do it [less],” he said.

Using the bumblebee as an example, he said the insect shouldn’t be able to fly; yet it does. Likewise, he argues if “we keep lowering the bar” on what we expect from students, their level of achievement will continue to decline. They won’t fly.

And how does that happen?

“We need to put in the time and the effort to get it done,” he said.

Those are fighting words for Congressman James Langevin. Langevin made a tour of displays, stopping to talk with students, teachers and judges.

He listened to Vets sophomore Katelen Pick describe how she measured the electricity generated by a panel of photovoltaic cells to determine under what conditions they produced the greatest output. Katelen said she had some help from her father with the electronics of the display. She likes math and she likes science. “It’s fun.”

That is music to the ears of Langevin who said he fears “we’re being out-paced by China.” He said we need to find ways to get young people into the STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] fields and events such as the science fair is a means of engaging them.

“Part of it is the way we educate kids,” he said. “We lose their interest. We need hands-on education that makes it relevant to the real world.” Part of the solution he sees is incorporating other fields of study, such as the arts, with the sciences. To that end, he said he has been talking with John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design and a former MIT professor.

STEAM is a RISD initiative to add Art and Design to the national agenda of STEM. According to the RISD website, the goal is to foster the true innovation that comes with combining the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer.

RISD offers endless examples of how art and design education teaches the flexible thinking, risk-taking and creative problem solving needed to solve today’s most complex and pressing challenges – from health care to urban revitalization to global warming.

Those familiar with the science fair didn’t think this year’s crop of students is remarkably different from other years.

“They’re following the scientific method, following multiple trials,” said Mt. Pleasant High chemistry teacher Helaine Hager after judging the work of Johnston’s Hannah Bergeron. Titled “Ready Set Glow,” Hager researched the effect of heat on luminol, a chemical that emits a blue glow, concluding that heat causes it to glow brighter but shortens the span of luminescence.

Barrington middle school teacher Karen Fletcher, display safety supervisor for the fair, said that science standards have been lacking in the curriculum and that changes are coming.

As for what Emily DiGiorgio will tell her aunts, after trying different hair coloring methods on a mannequin and washing its hair for eight straight days, the permanent works best.

Fair finalists were picked Saturday and invited back for breakfast and best of show judging on Sunday. Awards will be made at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Knight Campus.


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