The power of the scientific method and the creativity of third- through 12th-graders was on display at the annual Flathead County Science Fair Thursday.
For students like Columbia Falls Junior High seventh-grader Elyse Byrd, the science fair was an opportunity to engineer and enhance a design to improve life.
What put the wheels in motion for her project was an internet advertisement for a gravity light. Byrd learned that more than 1 billion people don’t have access to electricity. She also learned about the advantage of using gravity versus solar power as a green energy source. Unlike the sun — gravity never sets.
The particular gravity light she looked at online required the purchasing parts. She thought, why not create a blueprint for one using free, recycled materials?
Her prototype uses a pulley system on a vertical structure composed of metal pipes, and bike and microwave parts she welded together. For people who don’t have the skills or tools to weld, she said wood can be substituted for the basic structure.
Most scientists and engineers don’t reach success immediately and neither did Byrd.
“The first I didn’t finish because it didn’t make enough RPM’s,” she said, pointing to three prototypes she had sketched out with a pencil.
The eventual solution, a microwave turntable motor. To create a weighted pulley she filled a steel pipe with nails attached to a bicycle chain.
“This is just weight. You can hook up anything. You could hook up my backpack,” Byrd said. “This is just a little metal rod, you don’t need specific [items] just a counterweight.
As this is going down, it’s turning these cogs which turns this big [bike] sprocket, which turns this little BMX sprocket, which I have a locknut that turns the driveshaft, which I welded a long nut with a cotter pin through the generator and this long nut.”
Once set in motion, an LED light flickered on.
“Someday I’d like to become an engineer. A mechanical engineer would be my most desired job.”
Stillwater Christian School eighth-grader Taylor Gray came up with her science project after thinking about how she could improve her own memory retention.
“I have a really hard time in school as a student studying for tests and remembering information on study guides and handouts, so I thought that maybe changing the fonts on those handouts would help me remember better,” Gray said.
Before testing her hypothesis, she researched how the brain interprets letters.
“The brain connects the word or sentence with an image of the word,” Gray said. “They have to know what the word means, the letters that make up the word, and the thing that the word represents.”
She then had to choose fonts. Times New Roman — the default typeface used in most media — including the study guides, handouts and textbooks Gray and her classmates see every day, was a given.
Gray then chose three other sans-serif fonts with different weights, widths and style.
“I thought these three would all do better than Times New Roman,” she said.
Using groups of 10 test subjects at a time, Gray had them study a list of 20 words in a particular font for two minutes. The list would be taken away for a minute and then the subjects would have to write as many words as they could remember. After a one-minute break, test subjects would be given a list in another font.
“My results were correct,” Gray said. Three other fonts outperformed Times New Roman.
Gray won grand champion in the “Biological” category.
She said she’s thinking about sharing the results with her teachers to see if using a different font for study materials would result improve memory retention and test scores.
Many student scientists were inspired by their environmental surroundings.
“A couple years ago I was at a small pond I like to swim and fish at by my house and I found a snapping turtle. My dad said they were invasive so I found out about eDNA testing,” said Kalispell Middle School eighth-grader Jakob Ritzdorf.
Environmental DNA is collected where organisms are found, such as water. DNA accumulates in an environment through shed skin or feces, for example.
His project, titled “The Effectiveness of eDNA to find the Distribution of an Invasive Species,” earned Ritzdorf grand champion and an Audubon Society Wildlife Conservation Award.
“I wanted to try to do eDNA testing to see where else they were in the Flathead Valley,” Ritzdorf said, noting that the turtles are “very good predators.”
After extracting DNA, Ritzdorf got false negative results.
“I think that’s because I stored it for too long after I took the samples,” Ritzdorf said, adding “Most eDNA testing is done in a stream, but this was found in a lake so the DNA could have settled to the bottom.”
Already, Ritzdorf is planning how to modify his experiment and continue his research.
“Next year I want to use a different [DNA] marker,” Ritzdorf said.
Winners in sixth grade and above are eligible to compete at the Montana Science Fair on March 19-20 at The University of Montana.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.