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Data reveal kids' queries are baffling

A K-12 science fair showcases the work of students' curious minds.

By LOGAN D. MABE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


TAMPA -- About 1,000 Hillsborough County students gathered at the University of South Florida Sun Dome on Tuesday to shed light on some of the deepest scientific questions of our time.

Such as, which soda has the longest lasting fizz? Can diaper material make for a greener lawn? Do second-graders have a built-in capacity for ESP?

Oh, and one student may be on her way to finding a cure for cancer.

"Out of all the schools in Hillsborough County, we've got the cream of the crop here," said Barb Fisher, who organized publicity for the 21st annual regional science fair. Some of the projects are daunting even for adults. "Let me tell you, I've taught science for 25 years and I look at some of these projects and just go, "Mmm-huh, okay.' "

Students from kindergarten through 12th grade, in public and private schools, entered about 850 science projects, said co-director Nancy Marsh.

"The science fair mirrors what the real professional scientists of the world do on a daily basis," Marsh said. "They identify problems, gather data and they find answers."

The fair continues today and is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Award ceremonies will follow, with kindergarten through fifth-grade awards at 6:15 p.m. and sixth- through 12th-grade awards at 8:15 p.m.

Andrea Ringer, who coordinated projects at the middle school level, said the key to a solid project is getting the students to ask a compelling question.

"We try to get them to come up with a question that interests them," Ringer said. "We have to get them to think about the world around them. A lot of these are real-life projects."

For example, sixth-graders Matthew Hardin, Mitchell Shipman and Nick Smith, all of Rodgers Middle School in Riverview, wondered whether their heart rates increased when they played video games with varying degrees of violence.

They hypothesized that the more violent the game, the more their heart beats would climb. "But our data didn't support our hypothesis," Mitchell said.

"We actually found that the medium violence game was the lowest of them all,' Nick said. Byron Randolph, a fourth-grader at Springhead Elementary in Plant City, wondered whether "Diaper Power" would make for greener pastures. Byron found that if he took the stuffing (sodium polyacylate) out of a diaper and used it to line a tray of sod, the grass grew greener and taller than trays without the stuff.

"It absorbs the water and keeps it there, and the root system will feed off it," Byron said. Theoretically, a lawn sown with diaper stuffing could help grass survive droughts.

"I tell you what, I'm really impressed with the maturity and attitude of these kids," said judge Janice Kurtz, a retired psychologist looking over fifth-grade projects. "They approach it very professionally. We have some budding scientists here."

Kurtz had just finished reviewing a project called "ESP: Do the Young Have an Advantage?" by Daniella Schocken, a fifth-grader at Independent Day School.

"Around the age of second grade, they do seem to have a very significant advantage over children younger than them and children older than them," Daniella said. Using flashcards with different symbols on them, she tested kindergarteners, second-graders and fifth-graders at her school.

She concluded that kindergarteners are too young to know what ESP is, and fifth-graders are too jaded to believe in it. "Second grade obviously was the happy medium between the two," Daniella said.

Anu Kotha, a sophomore in King High School's International Baccalaureate program, has been studying a natural cancer fighter for two years. The idea came from her research on "the French paradox," which tries to explain why the French, who love rich food, have a lower rate of heart disease than Americans.

Anu, who won a first prize last year for the first phase of the project, looked at how a compound called resveratrol, found in grapes and peanuts, affected normal and cancer cell growth in the heart muscle tissue of mice. She did her work at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, under the direction of Dr. Richard Jove, program leader of molecular oncology.

Could a Tampa 10th-grader be on to a cure for cancer? "I don't know, maybe," Anu said.

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