On March 8, students from grades 6-12 throughout Eastern Washington converged at the Columbia Center Mall in Kennewick to showcase their scientific and engineering prowess at the Mid-Columbia Regional Science and Engineering Fair.
The oldest science fair in the state of Washington, this volunteer-run event is in its 63rd year and each spring hosts around 255 professionally-judged entries. Of those entries, the top two placers from the Senior High School Division (grades 9-12) are invited to attend the prestigious International Science and Engineering Fair, which this year will be May 13 in Pittsburgh. Students there can compete for many special awards as well as the coveted grand prize of a $75,000 scholarship.
Last year, the two winners of the Mid-Columbia Science Fair were Christopher Kang of Richland and Abrag Nassar of Sunnyside, both of whom created mind-blowing projects. Kang’s project, titled “Utilizing Machine Learning Techniques to Identify the Risk of Cancerous Skin Lesions,” involved a device he invented that successfully diagnosed melanoma tumors without the guidance of a doctor. Nassar’s project, titled “Reversing High Glucose Levels Through a Novel Approach: Celegans as a Model for Treating Diabetes,” created an innovative way to treat diabetes.
As a testament to the extreme degree of competitiveness of things at the next level, these two local scientists did not place at the 2017 International Science and Engineer Fair. Even though they did not win anything there, the students said in an online article that they nonetheless enjoyed their once-in-a-lifetime experience.
This year, instead of being merely an interested observer, I actually participated in the science fair. From my first-hand knowledge, I can tell you that these projects require a tremendous amount of time and effort. Through the process of composing a journal of literary reviews and procedures to completing a poster presenting your experiment, a thorough, complete project is certainly something to be proud of.
However, while you’re sure to be proud of a finished project, the mostly hands-off rules that define the requirements for presenting an entry made finishing a project a complex, cumbersome and largely ambiguous task. This was especially true for first-timers like myself who didn’t have prior knowledge of what a completed project was supposed to include.
From my observations at the fair, I also noticed an apparent divide between projects that received professional help and those that did not. Specifically, the children of parents with access to scientific laboratories had much more professional-looking projects due to the greater access they had to sophisticated lab equipment and expert advice.
Nonetheless, I am still extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in such an engaging and hands-on project. My project for this year involved constructing microbial fuel cells. They’re basically batteries powered by the anaerobic bacteria I found in mud, and I modified the salt bridges in various cells to see which combination of salt type and concentration yielded the most powerful cell. The feedback I received from the professional judges was priceless and taught me more about the scientific method than a number of my traditional science classes.
I would gladly recommend participating in next year’s fair to any passionate student who wants to learn new things about the world and themselves. I also encourage any adult interested in participating to consider volunteering at next year’s fair. It’s the tireless volunteers who make this fair — and the knowledge garnered there — possible.
For more information about the regional fair, go to MidColumbiaScienceFair.org.
• Paul Glenski is a senior at Eisenhower High School.