The Montgomery County (Md.) Science fair, aka “ScienceMontgomery,” is not your average science fair. Many of the students living in the communities around the NRC headquarters have access to advanced science curricula and research opportunities, and there is a large pool of high-tech, biomedical, and research institutes that set the bar high for hands-on learning.
For me, who grew up in a very small Midwest farming community, serving as a judge for a special NRC award is always an eye-opening experience.
I was in good company with a 14-person volunteer team of NRC employees who got to evaluate more than 300 science projects from local middle schools and high schools. I was on the team that reviewed the high school projects and we picked the top three for NRC Community Awards that demonstrated achievement and application to the NRC mission, goals and responsibilities.
What I find most interesting, year after year, is watching, listening and seeing the current trends in topics the students choose as their science project.
A science project can be an experiment, a demonstration, a research effort, a collection of scientific items or display of scientific apparatus presented for viewing. This year there was a huge surge in cyber security, computer modeling and analyses projects throughout the fair.
In the high school completion judges must listen to the student’s presentation and their responses to questions asked. You can tell immediately which students know their topics and which ones have had too much adult or parental support.
What stands out when you speak to students can easily be summed up in their ingenuity of their project design, subject knowledge and passion for discovery solutions. I found these in the 2014 NRC award winners.
I particularly find amazing how the students re-engineer and recycle materials, and create new working designs. In the case of the first place project “Replacing Modern Sprinkler Systems with Infrared Detection to Locate and Extinguish Fires,” it was cool how they took motherboards, rubber bands and other common household items to create a working product that used infrared sensor technology to detect the hot spots of a fire and direct water to this location. For the NRC, fire protection and fire code continues to be a major spotlight issue in nuclear power plants and facilities.
When I listened to the student whose project, “Saturated Nuclear Matter in the Large Nc and Heavy Quark Limits of Quantum Chromodynamics,” his ownership or mastery of the subject and presentation was so amazing that it made me flash back to my own quantum physics professors in college. This high-schooler was so savvy and professional. Basically his project worked through mathematical proofs, from first principles, on fundamental properties of quantum chromodynamics.
Novel solutions to real world problems such as “Finding Ways to Reduce Rush Hour Commute Times Using Computer Simulations” were another common theme at the science fair. This student programmed a simulation for a certain section of highway to evaluate potential solutions (such as adding exits, increasing the speed limit, adding a lane, etc.) to determine the best method to reduce traffic delays. He used data from the Department of Transportation to construct a true-to-life model of the situation. I could use less traffic to and from work!
In the end, learning about science is at the heart of a science fair; and anything I can do to fuel this passion is reward enough. By the way, the NRC supports this event because it is a way to give back to the community, engage students with an interest in STEM careers and – possibly – as a future recruitment tool. Winners receive an award certificate, a chance to present their projects to NRC staff and a NRC logo merchandise gift certificate.
Nine students were selected for the NRC Community Award that demonstrated achievement and application to the NRC mission, goals and responsibilities.
Middle School (Junior) Division:
1st Place: Raspberry Pi Controlled Robots — Student: Kevin Chen; Roberto Clemente Middle School
2nd Place: Securing Computer Networks — Students: George Klees and Theo Tosini; Takoma Park Middle School
3rd Place: The Efficiency of Data Encryption Methods — Student(s): Andrew Komo and Noah Kim; Takoma Park Middle School
High School (Senior) Division:
1st Place: Replacing Modern Sprinkler Systems with Infrared Detection to Locate and Extinguish Fires — Students: Ishan Mundra and Karan Chawla; Poolesville High School
2nd Place: Saturated Nuclear Matter in the Large Nc and Heavy Quark Limits of Quantum Chromodynamics — Student: Ishaun Datta; Montgomery Blair High School
3rd Place: Finding Ways to Reduce Rush Hour Commute Times Using Computer Simulations — Student: Richard Wang; Poolesville High School