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Science Buddies: Contra Costa Times

SCIENTIFIC SAVVY

Posted on Tue, March 19, 2002

By Glennda Chui
San Jose Mercury News

Behind every good science fair project is a helping hand.

Not the mom or dad who builds a project, start to finish, and slaps the kid's name on it. That's clearly cheating.

We're talking someone who can give a project a gentle nudge at just the right time -- steering a student toward ideas that are both manageable and scientifically interesting, and offering advice when things go wrong.

In some cases, the mentor is a scientist who invites a student into the lab to do research. Yibo Yang, for instance -- an 11th-grader at Palo Alto High who competed in last week's Synopsys Silicon Valley Science and Technology Championship in San Jose -- has been working with a stroke researcher at Stanford University.

When it comes to getting help, though, some kids have all the advantages. They have parents with scientific or technical backgrounds, or science-fair-savvy teachers who are willing to take the time and trouble to guide them through the process. Some are able to find mentors through their local science fair organizations. Only a few, like Yibo, have enough confidence to look for a mentor on their own.

For the rest, well, tough -- until now.

A Silicon Valley entrepreneur is setting up a program that, if it takes off, could give kids throughout the Bay Area the support they need to carry out successful projects.

Called Science Buddies, it matches a middle school student with a high school student who serves as a mentor. The middle-schooler gets help with a project; the high-schooler can earn community service credit, which looks good on college applications. A third member of the team, an adult with an extensive science or technical background, stands by to offer advice. It's all done online, so distance is no barrier.

The program started this year as a pilot project, matching 40 middle-schoolers in Oakland, San Francisco and Marina with high school students in Burlingame, Salinas, Larkspur and Monterey. But next year, founder Kenneth L. Hess hopes to expand, pairing several hundred students with people who can help.

"I know a lot of kids aren't getting the kind of exposure to science in the curriculum that I'd like to see, and I'd like to help out," Hess said last week.

"I've seen throughout my life and career just how important science is -- not to the exclusion of reading, writing and math, of course, but just extremely important."

Hess was the founder and president of Banner Blue Software in Fremont, which developed a popular software program, Family Tree Maker, that allows people to find and organize information about their ancestors. He sold the company to Broderbund Software in 1995. From his home in Carmel, he now spends most of his time developing Science Buddies, which is funded by his family foundation.

Daughter prompts idea

"A science fair project lets a kid pick the area they're really interested in and really go into depth," he said. "When I saw how much she learned, I thought it would be great to extend that to more kids."

Yet fewer than 1 percent of the eligible students in Monterey County actually participate in the county science fair, Hess said, and that's far too low.

Aficionados say these fairs are important because they draw young students into the process of science and give them the thrill of discovery. And the prizes can be substantial: At last week's Silicon Valley fair, students competed for thousands of dollars in cash awards as well as for internships and scholarships, including up to 10 four-year scholarships, worth $32,000 each, offered by the San Jose State University engineering school.

The more sophisticated fairs have evolved to reflect the way real science works.

Testing a hypothesis

This year, for instance, the Silicon Valley fair organizers pushed to get rid of demonstration projects -- those that explain a topic or show how something works -- and encouraged students to follow the scientific method of testing a hypothesis.

As a result, attendance was a little lower than usual, with 985 students presenting 672 projects, said Sandra Meditch, a civil engineer for RJA and Associates in Gilroy who coordinates publicity for the fair.

But that's OK, she said. "We're here to really improve on the quality of the projects, not the quantity."

Ten or 15 years ago, students might have been admonished to do their own work -- no help from your neighbors. But today, they're encouraged to work together and to seek advice from professional scientists and engineers. That's the way real scientists work, as part of a community freely sharing ideas and results with colleagues across the world.

The projects at this year's fair, held in a cavernous hall at McEnery Convention Center, covered a wide range:

Do fast-food or homemade hamburgers have more germs? Does the size of a cricket affect the frequency of its chirp? What makes a better water filter -- a paper towel or a Kleenex?

Brandy Morrow, a senior at Leigh High School in San Jose, fairly glowed as she explained her model "maglev" train. Made of balsa wood, it hovered just above the track, levitated by the repulsive force between magnets that line the track and those on its underside. "There's no one who basically believed I could do this," she said. "I did it to prove them wrong."

Five students from Russia, lured by a friend's description of the fair, flew in for a week to compete.

"I like the system of science fair. It is a very interesting system," said one of them, 15-year-old Michael Becker, who plays on the Russian national junior tennis team. He used a heart-rate monitor to determine the ideal level of exertion he should achieve during pre-game workouts.

Many of the projects had the benefit of help from teachers, parents or other mentors.

Carl Gohmann, for instance, a senior at Leigh High, built a wind tunnel and used it to test model airplane wings -- an idea he got from his trigonometry teacher, who is a pilot.

Kaela Garvin, Elena Martinez and Jennifer Thomas, sixth-graders from Springer School in Mountain View, built a series of go-karts powered by an electric drill. Elena's dad came up with the idea during an exploratory trip to a hardware store.

None of the go-karts worked as hoped. "We didn't do our goal of getting to school and back" on the go-kart, Jennifer said, "but that's what we might do if we do further research."

Alongside scientists

Some students went one more step.

Grace Hsu, a 10th-grader at Saratoga High, spent four months working alongside Stanford graduate students at the university's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. It was part of an ongoing study to see how plants and animals might respond to changes in global climate during the next few decades.

Her job was to collect hundreds of dead slugs, dry them in an oven and weigh them to see if raising the level of carbon dioxide or nitrogen in the air had affected their growth.

"I thought it was a really great experience," Hsu said. "That's a lot of slugs. When you stick them in the oven, they smell, too."

And Yibo, the 11th-grader at Palo Alto High, worked in the Stanford lab of Dr. Rona Giffard, an anesthesiologist who is probing just how brain cells are damaged during a stroke.

Yibo said he's been entering projects in science fairs since seventh grade, and he had already worked in another professional lab before moving to the area from Michigan.

Grace and Yibo said they found mentors on their own. They scanned the Internet for interesting projects and then contacted scientists by e-mail to see if they would be willing to assist.

"Normally, I don't have high school students in my lab. It's pretty unusual," Giffard said.

Yibo, she said, was a special case: "He's obviously a very, very bright kid and a very self-motivated person" who is conscientious about his work.

But you don't need to work in a lab or spend a lot of money to come up with a great science fair project, Hess contends.

"The judges are looking for a very simple experiment that the student understands completely," he said. "They want to see that the student knows what he's doing, that he understands the theory behind the experiment. The experiment itself doesn't have to be that difficult."

He said it's important to get mentors involved early in the process so they can help direct a child to the right topic and toward background reading that will help them understand the scientific principles.

Based on his experience with this year's pilot project, Hess said he plans to write or buy new software for the Science Buddies program that will allow students and their mentors to chat via instant messages. "Kids just really love that kind of communication," he said.

Hess said he also wants to develop ways to mentor students who may not have easy access to computers, or who may not be comfortable using them. This was apparently a problem at one middle school that dropped out of the Science Buddies pilot program this year.

"What I'm really concerned with is that you want to expose kids to a lot of things so that they make the choice that's best for them in the long run," he said.

"I want to reach the people who haven't had a good, fun exposure to science, and increase the numbers greatly of people that do."