Teens from around the world were in Pittsburgh this week presenting projects at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair hosted Downtown at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Forget electromagnets and mouse trap cars. Many of these high-level high-schoolers are published authors and hold patents. Last year’s winner created a test for pancreatic cancer now headed toward clinical trial.
ISEF, a program of Society for Science & the Public, is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition. Approximately 1,700 high school students from over 75 countries, regions and territories compete to attend the fair. Showcases of independent research result in nearly $4 million in prizes.
Indiana freshman Noor Abdullah examined how a sweet-smelling shrub affects nearby soil.
“I studied the impact of Honeysuckle, also known as Lonicera maackii, on microbial growth,” Abdullah said.
She got into science in third grade, and a concern for the environment – which prompted this experiment.
“I actually found that with soil bacteria, because it’s very important for the rest of the ecosystem, that it was actually harming it by decreasing how much bacteria there is and decreasing how many different kinds of bacteria there are,” she said.
Abdullah said the honeysuckle affects the ability of the soil to be affected by certain good bacteria, which can be dangerous, she said, as it often grows near agricultural fields.
Abdullah hopes to one day make a career in the field – possibly for a company such as Dow AgroSciences, a Dow Chemical company.
“When we find different mechanisms like this plant, we can use it for the greater good,” Abdullah said. “There are so many things that haven’t been discovered.”
Sophomore Viraj Patel of Florida took a common household cleaning product and tested its effect on humans.
“I learned that PineSol has a chemical called toluene,” Patel said. “If inhaled, it can be dangerous to humans, so I wanted to test that.”
Patel used yeast and different concentrations of Pine-Sol to determine effects, but after experiments he said his results were inconclusive.
“So I have to do more, continuous study to really find out," he said, "in the upcoming years.”
Other projects included examining bone replacement with 3D printing, a pesticide that could be more effective in smaller quantities than some currently in use, and a smart bracelet and app that tracks not only a child’s whereabouts, but could also monitor heart rate and possibly detect seizures.
But, not all of the projects were about chemicals, computers, numbers and technology. The social sciences were also represented. High school junior Kate Murphy from Ohio looked into gender roles in Marvel comic books.
“I looked at the way women were shown in comic books, if they were treated equally, if they were shown stereotypically,” said Murphy. “I had hypothesized that compared to the 1960s, the scores for 2010 through 2014, women would be shown more equally and less stereotypically.”
Murphy got visiting scholar status and accessed comic books from the Bowling Green State University’s popular culture library. She then set up a scoring system in 7 categories, totaling 35 points. She read 788 comic books spanning several decades, and then scored each decade.
“In 1960 the average score out of 35 points that a comic book received was 12.20. The higher the score, the more equitably women are shown,” said Murphy. “In 2014 that average score went up to 22.50 – so it almost doubled.”
Murphy said she isn’t heavily in to the traditional sciences, but rather into the arts – so she said she is part of a larger effort to integrate the arts into Science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields.
“One of the schools that’s been sending me things is Brown University and they don’t use STEM, they use STEAM – science, technology, engineering the arts and mathematics, and that’s really what I’m here for. A well-rounded individual who likes lots of things is cool, liking things is cool, that’s what makes science far cool, it’s doing something you like.”
And the kids there were excited about their projects and others – and all had pretty much same reason for being there – they love science and have fun doing it.
ISEF will wrap up with an awards ceremony Friday; dozens of awards and scholarships totaling more than $4 million will be given. ISEF floats among three cities: Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Phoenix – it will be back in Pittsburgh in 2018.