Young minds tackle big concepts

72nd version of State Science & Engineering Fair spans topics from advanced physics to oceanography

Warwick Beacon ·

Some of the brightest, most curious and scientific young minds in the state gathered at the Community College of Rhode Island on Sunday afternoon to showcase their research- and experiment-driven projects encompassing a wide range of STEM fields at the annual Rhode Island Science and Engineering Fair (RISEF).

Occurring annually since 1947, the RISEF is an opportunity for students from middle and high schools - public or private - to demonstrate their understanding of scientific topics spanning a range of 17 different categories, from biology and chemistry, oceanography and physics and beyond, for a chance to earn scholarships, financial awards and international recognition.

Of the 232 student projects submitted this year, the top 10 from each category would be brought back for further judging - and the top two projects from each category will be sent to Phoenix, Ariz. for a chance to compete alongside 1,700 of the brightest kids on the planet at the international science fair this upcoming May.

A stroll across the fair floor would impress even those with a nominal interest in science. Students ranging from sixth grade to seniors in private academies tackled projects that required months of research, data crunching and a strong grasp of how to utilize the scientific process to make observations and draw conclusions from their research.

“I’m amazed every year,” said RISEF Director Mark Fontaine, who has run the fair for the past 25 years. “For some of these kids, the science fair is the only time in their educational career where they are truly doing science.”

And these projects aren’t your stereotypical baking soda volcanoes either. Take Isabella Heffernan for example. Inspired by her own peanut allergy, the St. Mary Academy Bay View sophomore and Warwick native undertook an effort to analyze how peanut allergies manifest in a species of bacteria within a miniature organ that she grew. The project was a first grant recipient and best in fair finalist. She hopes to take her strong grasp of science into a political career to be able to enact educated scientific changes.

Not wanting to be shown up by his older sister, Isabella’s little brother Addison Heffernan - a student at St. Kevin School in Warwick - demonstrated world-class Rubik’s Cube solving skills through his project, which sought to find the best lubrication to utilize in solving the classic puzzle game. It’s more than an experiment for Addison though. He competes professionally, and is so good that not only can he complete the Rubik’s Cube one-handed (necessarily for the moment, following a Nerf battle incident that broke his arm), but he is good enough to represent the country in the World Cube Association’s international championships in Australia this summer - and his project earned a first grant recognition.

In a heavily research-based project, Ishita Rai, a Bay View junior and another Warwick native, undertook analyzing nearly 11,000 patient records from Rhode Island Hospital between 2015-18 to examine whether or not drug-resistant illnesses (pneumonia, specifically) caused a higher mortality rate for patients who are staying in the hospital for other reasons, such as catastrophic falls. She was able to make many observations with the data, but ultimately concluded that drug-resistant pneumonia does not lead to significantly higher death percentages in hospital patients - despite what may be a common belief. The project was also a best in fair finalist.

A project that may catch the attention of local conservationists, and earned a second grant recognition, came from Bishop Hendricken freshman Jacob Rademacher, who spent about 27 hours between August and October of 2018 observing and collecting debris on three of Warwick’s beaches - Oakland Beach, City Park and Goddard Memorial State Park.

Rademacher learned that the most common refuse on shore, by far, was cigarette butts, and that interestingly enough, City Park had by far the highest amount of trash strewn along its shoreline, despite the fact that it is shielded from the larger body of Narragansett Bay by the Old Buttonwoods peninsula. He concluded this showed that a majority of trash winding up at City Park was coming from the land, and not by sea.

Rademacher further concluded that a vast majority of the cigarette butts on the beaches were found on the wrack line - the area of the beach where debris tends to wind up after high tide recedes - and suggested that if the city were to invest in one beach combing machine and focused the efforts on the wrack line at the local facilities, they could eliminate 80 percent of cigarette butt waste instantly. He also recommended strategically placing cigarette disposal bins around the beaches to encourage proper disposal.

Students are judged on creativity and originality of their projects, along with the demonstration of sound scientific understanding and the ability to communicate their findings effectively. RISEF boasts that the science fair encourages all facets of the Next Generation Science Standards, such as asking questions and defining problems, utilizing models, planning and carrying out investigations, interpreting data, and being able to argue based on evidence and communicate conclusions.

In addition to bragging rights and showcasing their talents, students can receive individual awards from industry leading companies. Entities such as Raytheon, the Research Institute for Advanced Computer Science Tasca Motors sponsored the event along with CCRI. The exposure can lead to much more for students as well.

“For many of them, it’s a starting point to a career in science,” said Dr. Elaine Magyar, a professor at Rhode Island College and RISEF board member.

Fontaine said that if he could advocate for one improvement to the fair, it would be to encourage more public middle schools to participate. While most private and parochial middle schools in the state participated, he said only two public middle schools submitted projects this year.

“The more the merrier,” he said.