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Sugar beets as road salt? Judging the Ottawa Regional Science Fair

By Apartment613 on April 12, 2013

post by Siu Hong Yu, science fair judge extraordinaire

“Can a modern society live carbon free?”

“What brand of bubble gum can produce the largest bubbles?”

“What’s down with gravity?”

“What powers flowers?”

“Can text affect our perception of colour?”

“Why do golf balls have dimples?”

These were just a tiny sample of the fascinating questions featured at the 52nd annual Ottawa Regional Science Fair last Saturday at Carleton University’s Ravens’ Nest basketball court, where over 300 students between grades 7 and 12 showed off their scientific wit and wooed judges with logic and creativity. Limited only by students’ curiosity, topics covered included life and health sciences, computing, engineering, biotech and environmental studies, while close to a third of the projects were en français.

The ORSF not only provides motivation and recognition to the future Steve Jobs and Rachel Carson, it also serves as a forum for the budding scientists to interact, play and learn from each other. In addition to the divisional awards and numerous sponsored special prizes valued up to $500, outstanding students are awarded with an all-expense-paid trip to the 2013 Canada-Wide Science Fair, to be held this year in Lethbridge, Alberta next month.

More than 150 local teachers and science professionals volunteered to judge at the fair. After a brief welcome and logistical note by Chief Judge Malcolm Butler, off I went to my judging assignments where Danilla Xing’s “Lace It Up” in the junior health sciences category caught my eye almost right away. Using play dough, ruler and some 2D analysis, the grade 8 Bishop Hamilton Montessori School student monitored and compared foot movements in fencing and basketball to help design higher performance sport shoes that would offer better foot protection. A visual learner interested in helping people in tangible ways, Danilla also wanted to apply what she learned to make more comfortable shoes for seniors. She won gold in her division.

After wrapping up deliberation with my judging team in the judge’s chamber over lunch, I chatted with James Grant, the software and database personnel at the event, when he was in the middle of printing out students’ cheques for the award ceremony. It turns out that James was himself a science fair participant back in the days and had competed at the national level seven times!

Back on the floor as the afternoon crowd trickled in, the whole gym was buzzing and echoed with comments like “Oh, I had no idea!” or “That’s amazing!” from the grownups. Even City Councillor Marianne Wilkinson dropped by. She was doubly impressed by the diversity of projects and the depth of knowledge from the young scientists. In between presenting their work and visiting fellow participants’ exhibits to vote for the Popular Choice Award (new this year), students were grooving around, reading, playing cardswatching movies on their laptops and facebooking on their smart phones.

Photo of Nicholas Chodura and his family by Siu Hong Yu.

Photo of Nicholas Chodura and his family by Siu Hong Yu.

After a speedy cleanup by the participants and volunteers with the help of eager parents, the much anticipated award ceremony kicked off with thunderous excitement. Throughout the ceremony, one particular junior project titled “175,000 tons: Can it just disappear?” kept coming up. Indeed, Nicholas Chodura from Turnbull School won so many awards that day that even his parents lost count. Nicholas was concerned about the amount of de-icing salt we use on the road in winter and its negative effects to the surrounding aquatic ecosystem. Through his research, he also identified that sugar beet extract could be used as a cost-saving and eco-friendly alternative. He has contacted the municipality of Ottawa about his findings and is hoping that the city will make the switch. Besides science, Nicholas enjoys visual arts and playing the drums. His parents Ray and Carolyn Chodura attributed their son’s success to the support he got from his school and teachers, as well as his love of reading. Ray also said that Nicholas would be paying for dinner that evening.

City Councillor Marianne Wilkinson chatting with Grand Prize winner Brian Laight. Photo by Siu Hong Yu.

City Councillor Marianne Wilkinson chatting with Grand Prize winner Brian Laight. Photo by Siu Hong Yu.

Last but not least, I caught up with this year’s grand prize winner Brian Laight, who was awarded a $1,000 Carleton University science and engineering entrance scholarship. Brian’s research involved screening the genetic material of an anti-cancer virus in the hope of increasing the virus’ replication, thereby improving the virus’ ability to kill cancer cells. While biology is by far the grade 12 All Saints High School student’s favourite subject, Brian also loves hockey and is the captain of the school ruby team. To top it all off, he just went on a humanitarian trip in the Dominican Republic in February. Oh, did I mention that this was Brian’s first time participating in the ORSF?

Danilla, Nicholas and Brian are three of the 11 students selected to represent Ottawa at the Canada-Wide Science Fair. Have science, will travel… Good luck in Alberta!

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