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Science as a Real Current Event

Education: At annual Los Angeles County fair, Sept. 11 attacks inspire their share of student experiments.


Even at the Los Angeles County Science Fair, Sept. 11 has inspired a trend.

Among the more traditional projects--robots, potted plants and Popsicle-stick bridges--were about 25 studies on the ability of steel girders to resist fires and how skyscrapers can survive terrorist attacks.

Those terrorism-influenced projects were just a fraction of the 929 entrants from 150 public and private schools at the competition, which opened Wednesday at the Los Angeles Convention Center. But they show that science is connected to dramatic history as well as everyday life, organizers say.

"Science fairs get students, parents and teachers to really see the relevance of all the facts and figures that they memorize in science textbooks and allow them to explore problems," said Dean Gilbert, science fair president. "Most people just think of science as what creates the bombs or causes destruction and don't explore how it can actually save us from harm."

Eighth-grader Lynn Hiel tried to simulate the fire in the World Trade Center when she used a Bunsen burner to heat steel rods until they collapsed. Rods that the Palos Verdes Intermediate School student coated with fiberglass stayed intact three times longer.

"Most of the people at the fair seem to get their ideas out of a textbook," Lynn said. "I was interested in doing something a little more unusual that might actually help people."

The terrorist attacks also shaped a project entered by Lynn's brother, Tom Hiel.

The sixth-grader loaded sand onto a small metal platform supported by steel rods of different lengths to determine how much weight they could support. The idea was to test how long a floor in a high-rise could remain intact if an airplane crashed into it.

"When the connections between the World Trade Center floors melted away, the distance between the supports increased and made the whole thing collapse," Tom said. "If they weren't trying to make their buildings so big, the disaster wouldn't have been as bad."

Tom, Lynn and the other students will find out how their projects rate at an awards ceremony at 5:30 p.m. today, following free public viewing from 1 to 5 p.m. in the West Hall of the Convention Center in downtown Los Angeles.

The competition is stiffer since the number of schools participating has doubled from last year and about 200 more projects were entered due to a major outreach effort by the fair.

Judges roamed the rows of displays Wednesday morning, choosing finalists from each of 20 categories, including crowded sections like botany and the slimmer pickings in mathematics. The top three students in each category will advance to the state science fair at the California ScienCenter in Exposition Park at the end of May.

Although many judges said they appreciated the projects tied to current events, they said the more quirky entries grabbed their attention.

"You always have the canned experiments like the bridges and the lasers," said Trina Ray, an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, stopping in front of a project about how the amount of salt in meat affects the effort to slice it. "But for something like this, you know the kid was just sitting at the dinner table trying to cut his meat and this experiment was born." (Turns out, salting makes no difference in cutting.)

When he became president of the county science fair three years ago, Gilbert noticed that fairs around the country were in decline. Teachers were concentrating more on course content and testing than on homegrown experiments, said Gilbert, a former science teacher in Long Beach.

Aiming to reverse that trend locally, science fair officials held workshops for teachers and collaborated with the Metropolitan Water District, one of its longtime sponsors, to target schools that had never participated.

"Teachers see the science fair as an additional item on their plate rather than as a unique opportunity to bring relevance to their teaching," Gilbert said. "We showed them how you can incorporate the research into the mainstream of instruction."

Norwalk High School freshman Jaime Lopez said a classroom lab experiment inspired his project, exploring the effect of temperature on enzymes, one of 13 entries the MWD funded.

Mentors from the science departments at Cal State campuses in Los Angeles, Northridge and Long Beach were matched with students from seven middle and high schools.

Jaime said he never would have considered the fair had it not been for the mentoring.

"I have enough schoolwork to do as it is," he said. "But this way I got to go deeper into something I had liked in one of my classes."

While the World Trade Center collapse raised much interest, traditional topics such as astronomy and space travel held their own.

Crescenta Valley High School freshman Maral DerSarkissian tested the effect of solar activity on the Earth's magnetic field in an experiment she said will further her goal of being the first Armenian woman in space.

"I have this dream I want to accomplish, and science fairs really help people like me develop their interests and learn more about what they want to do," she said.

Exposing students to those challenges is why Giovanna Sergi reinstituted a science fair last year when she started teaching at a Montebello parochial high school.

"Academics are very important, sports are very important, but if it weren't for the science fair, many of my students would not have the chance to show their true talents," said Sergi, who teaches science at Cantwell-Sacred Heart of Mary High School.

"It can be hard to fit it in with the other curriculum, but it's completely unfair to the students not to give them a chance."

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