DMU staff members stoke students’ spark for science

If you need to renew your hope in humanity, look no further than your nearest science fair. That was the experience of DMU staff members Lori Winter, a research assistant in physiology and pharmacology, and Keiko Sampson, an animal caretaker, who served as volunteer judges at the recent 65th State Science & Engineering Fair of Iowa at Iowa State University’s Hilton Coliseum.

Keiko Sampson and Lori Winter

During the fair, 398 junior and senior high-school students from more than 50 schools across the state exhibited more than 300 projects to compete for prizes, awards and scholarships valued at over $75,000. The competition addresses the Next Generation Science Standards’ call for students to create scientific research using the practices of science and engineering.

“This was my first year judging, and I was blown away by the creativeness and relevancy of many of the projects,” Keiko says. “I think this was the thing that I enjoyed – and surprised me – the most. Many of these students have identified real-world issues and are working on creative ways learn more and address them.”

Lori, who has served as a judge for the event for several years, was equally delighted by the experience. “I really have fun with this every year,” she says. “Just imagine – each project is presented at least three times, and many are presented five or six times. It’s a long day for these students, but by the end of the day they are still smiling.”

The fair is the largest STEM competition in the state and has been awarded the Governor’s Seal of Approval. Lori and Keiko viewed 27 projects by sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders and 18 projects by high school students in the animal science category. Keiko says a project that stood out for her was by Amara Orth, a student at Lewis Central High School in Council Bluffs, that was titled “Secret Sounds of Bees: Analysis of Honeybee Vibroacoustics Using Hidden Markov Models.”

Amara Orth’s honeybee project was the fair’s Grand Champion.

“The student developed a program that could recognize bee sounds and relate the sounds to hive health states. She is hoping to continue this project as she enters her college career,” Keiko says. “Her ultimate goal is to predict colony health based on these sounds as an early warning system against colony collapse in honeybees. This project went on to win Grand Champion and has also earned this emerging scientist national recognition at the Regeneron Science Talent Search.”

Keiko and Lori used the fair’s new, easy-to-use electronic judging system that allowed judges to use a phone or tablet to rate each project and provide comments to presenters. Judges chose the top projects in the morning; in the afternoon, a group of lead judges, which Lori served as this year, reviewed those 14 projects to select the winners.

“It is requested that all other judges go back to the floor and do educational judging,” she says. “This is a great opportunity to give some gently feedback on projects that may need a little nurturing. It also distracts from who the lead judges are looking at.”

Lori and Keiko look forward to serving as judges at next year’s fair.

“Overall, we got a wonderful opportunity to interact with some talented young scientists, and I can’t wait to do it again (hopefully) next year,” Keiko says.

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