SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
Almost 500 people teemed through the La Plata County Fairgrounds, with hundreds of students – some beaming, others ashen-faced, all nervous – vainly struggling to find a seat as organizers began announcing the winners of this year’s San Juan Basin Regional Science Fair.
More than 90 adults volunteered to judge projects entered by middle school and high school students from La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta, Dolores, Hinsdale and San Juan counties.
The students’ nerves were understandable, as the science fair – a unique combination of substance and showmanship – was akin to the scholastic Oscars, said Lynn Schneider, the event’s organizer.
For kids in rural America, Jeff Hatsfeld, the fair’s master of ceremonies, said the science fair represented a rare opportunity.
“What’s at stake isn’t just money and scholarships,” he said, but the chance to compete at the state level, and for one young scientist, a place at the International Science Fair.
Ultimately, out of 232 projects, 19 were nominated to represent the region at state.
Mancos High School junior Easton LaChapelle won a place to compete at the International Science Fair regardless of the results at state, with Pagosa Middle School’s Tate Hinger, Bayfield Middle School’s Lenka Doskoeil, and Grace Preparatory Academy’s Keelin Savage going as observers.
Throughout the fair, Easton, who – with five victories – is the Meryl Streep of the San Juan Basin Regional Science Fair – was mobbed by youngsters who recognized him and the bionic arm he designed from his recent appearance on Nickelodeon.
Participants largely eschewed the usual science fair tropes – victimizing fruit flies and pondering the true nature of tomatoes – for more immediate questions, and as usual, engineering projects overshadow subtler contributions of chemists and biologists.
Garret Cobb, a seventh-grader at St. Columba School, constructed a $120 hovercraft, which he estimates could carry both him and his father, though not, probably, over water. “It’s not that good quality,” he said. Garret wants to be a mechanical engineer, and he most admires Leonardo da Vinci because, “he tried to build a flying machine, and he got so close, then the Wright brothers came along,” said Garret, shaking his head.
Mancos sixth-graders Shania Pribble and Taeylor Samora of Cortez designed an adaptive snowboard after Taeylor’s older brother was paralyzed in a car accident just three months ago.
“He was in ICU for two months,” Taeylor said.
They added reflectors to the board because in tests, they found the seat unstable and discovered snow would pour into it. Taeylor said she decided to team up with Shania because “when the crash happened I was always pretty upset, and my parents were gone. Shania was always with me.”
Meanwhile, Keelin Savage, a freshman at Grace Preparatory Academy, pored over ancient Chinese and Native American arrow designs. She tested eight models for accuracy. A fan of “The Hunger Games” and an accomplished archer in her own right, Keelin found the best arrow design comprised a carbon-fiber shaft with feather fletchings that twist, “to eliminate wobbling,” and a broadhead arrow tip. Keelin seemed a little wistful as she explained she was unable to bring in the arrow tips, “because they’re made of razors.”
Some of the more intriguing questions were asked by chemists and biologists.
Rachael Moore, a junior at Grace Preparatory, said she became interested in the effects of color on memory because she, like many of her classmates, is dyslexic. In tests, she found people were better able to remember words printed on red paper than on white paper, but said, “I honestly don’t think there have been enough studies to completely warrant a change from white paper to red.”
The most popular test subjects proved to be participants’ family members, who, judging by the presentations, sacrificed much for science, with many kitchens, backyards and adult bodies surrendered to research.
Ignacio seventh-grader Gabriana Creason, who found multi-tasking improved the rate at which people both performed tasks and made mistakes, said she tested her aunt, sister, mother and father. Gabriana said only her sister had grumbled at the imposition.
“She said it was boring,” said Gabriana, who wants to be an emergency physician.
Grace Preparatory ninth-grader Dillon Flowers found human hair a more effective deer-repellent than mothballs or deer scram, which he apparently stashed around his yard for two months.
Alex Knight, a Bayfield eighth-grader, tested how saturation levels affect color and quality of photos after placing second in the 4-H photography competition last year.
“I’m looking to come in first this year. I found that saturation improves skin tone, so it’s good for TV commercials, and makes eyes appear darker. But decreasing it makes food more appetizing,” he said.
Josephine Mynatt, a sixth-grader a St. Columba, measured how teeth fared after soaking them in different beverages for seven days. Whereas the tooth submerged in water escaped more or less intact, the tooth that had been in Red Bull emerged black, yellow and misshapen, like a partially popped corn kernel, and the tooth in 5-Hour Energy came out like a cauliflower with every ridged riddled with moist black rot.
“My mom doesn’t let me drink those,” Josephine said.
Some of the more ambitious questions were felled by the paradoxes inherent to science. For instance, in his experiment, “The Universe: Is that all there is?” Wyeth Rossie, who was attempting to test the existence of matter beyond the known universe using lasers and fish, was forced to admit he could not because of “limited equipment.”
At the fair’s end, some students who left empty-handed comforted each other as they lined up for the bus home. Even without awards, the event proved that they, too, were stardust.