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Science Buddies Blog: May 2012 Archives

Success Story: A Video Game for the Blind

Dylan Viale's fifth-grade science project gave him a chance to share something he enjoys with his grandmother, who is blind. Designing his first video game ever, Dylan created Quacky's Quest, a maze game you don't have to see to play!


For his fifth grade science project, Dylan Viale (pictured above) used GameMaker to create a sound-based video game to share with his grandmother, who is blind. The project gave Dylan a firsthand look at what's involved in video game design, and his classmates got to try out his maze game—blindfolded. Read about other student science successes in the Science Buddies in Action area.

For related video and computer game resources, see the following:

As a fifth grader at Hidden Valley Elementary, Dylan had the option of doing a book report or a science project. Having explored both adhesives and ant repellents in science projects during the third and fourth grade, he again opted for a hands-on science exploration. This year, however, he pursued a topic that has both personal and social significance. Dylan wanted to see if he could design a video game that someone who is blind or has vision problems can play and enjoy. "I chose this project because I enjoy playing video games, and even though my grandmother has given me video games as birthday and Christmas presents, she has never been able to play the games since she cannot see them," explains Dylan. "I wanted to see if it [is] possible for a blind person to play video games."

Dylan's interest is both empathetic and inventive, and his project required him to put himself into the position of a blind gamer to better understand the issue. A typical video game involves both sight and sound, but it is possible to play many games even with the sound off. If you can see the game, you can still play. Dylan's project flips this around and asks whether or not being able to "see" a game is a required component in designing a game. "My science project was to see if I could design a video game for the blind using sound to replace sight," explains Dylan. By stepping back and questioning what actually "makes" a game, and what relationship sight and sound have to game play, Dylan immersed himself in game design issues, ones he hadn't necessarily considered when he was simply playing games for his own entertainment. You can mute the volume and still play, but what happens if you close your eyes and just listen?

Designing His First Video Game

Dylan hypothesized that if sound is used correctly within a game, then it is possible to create a game that a blind player can successfully play—and enjoy. "Because the video games that I play have sound in them, I thought that if I just put the sounds in the right places, a blind person would be able to move around." Building on that premise, Dylan took his first steps in video game development and design.

Dylan had not done any game programming before, but with his the goal of creating a sound-based video game in mind, he began researching his options for development. Based on resources at Science Buddies that suggest GameMaker as a creation tool for student video game projects, Dylan downloaded and installed GameMaker, worked through the tutorials, and began designing Quacky's Quest, a maze-oriented game that built upon his love of real-world hay mazes.

The 'Sound' of a Video Game

Developing a first video game can be challenging enough, but when your first game is one you hope will be playable both with and without being able to see the screen, the project takes on added complexity. Dylan, however, was up to the challenge. "I learned how much time and how many steps it takes to design a video game," he explains, "like creating sprites and making rooms and objects in a game." As Dylan quickly discovered, "programming a game is a lot of work, and every piece in the game requires a command, even an empty room."

In Quacky's Quest, "the goal is for the player to guide Quacky (the character in the game) through three different mazes to find the golden egg in the final room. Quacky follows a trail of diamonds and tries to avoid spiders and dynamite which happens when you go the wrong way," explains Dylan. From the description, you can imagine what the game looks like. But Dylan was determined to make a maze someone can navigate based on sound alone.

It's harder than it sounds! "Even one second of silence caused confusion," says Dylan. During early testing, he realized that it is easy to overlook places where sound cues are needed. "When I tested the game with my grandmother, [we] found that it had a serious problem," recalls Dylan. "Once she collected the diamonds in the game, there was no more sound. If she got confused in the maze and started getting lost, she [had] no way of knowing where she was going."

"I was surprised how much work it was to design the game," says Kelly Viale, Dylan's mother. "It was very involved (at least for a 10 year old). I was also surprised that when he came across a challenge in designing the game, he didn't want to quit."

Dylan went through several rounds of troubleshooting and tweaking to eliminate areas of confusion and to strengthen the sound cues in Quacky's Quest. To address some of the challenges that arose, he had to really think outside the box. For example, adding additional game elements behind Quacky as he moved forward in the maze helped solve a problem Dylan had observed when his grandmother tested an early version. "I had to program the game to drop boulders behind Quacky as he progressed through each maze, so that when she went backwards, it would make the negative sound of hitting a boulder or a wall."

A Winning Project

The project was harder than Dylan expected, but, in the end, he succeeded in developing a sound-guided game. His project won first place at his school science fair, and he went on to exhibit at the district fair. Quacky's Quest also earned Dylan the admiration of his classmates and teachers—and may have piqued curiosity about game design among other students. From Kelly's perspective, Dylan's project shows that when a gaming project is tied to the scientific or engineering process, the experience can have great value. Dylan's teacher, Mrs. Sullivan, was also supportive of Dylan's project. Though she encouraged the technical and engineering side of the project, she also pushed for him to follow the scientific method and test the game with blindfolded players so that he could gather data about the game. During this process, Dylan discovered that blindfolded players were actually slower at the game than his blind grandmother, who is used to taking cues from sound. "Sighted people were so used to using their eyes to play a game that it took them much longer to focus on the sounds," says Dylan.

"Dylan's project has created quite the interest at school," says Kelly, noting that more than a third of his classmates asked for a copy of their own to play at home. "I think that it is wonderful that this type of project teaches the kids how things work and that they have the ability to design a game," says Kelly.

For Dylan, the ultimate reward was personal. "The best part of the project was watching my grandmother actually play a video game," says Dylan. "I hope that one day video games will be available to all blind people."

Dylan has a number of interests, including karate, hiking, soccer and building with LEGO. While being a LEGO engineer currently makes his list of possible career paths, his first video game project has definitely sparked new interest.

Science Buddies resources and Project Ideas in Video & Computer Games are sponsored by support from the AMD Foundation.

Family Science: Pinholes and Safe Solar Viewing

Creating a pinhole projector for the eclipse encourages hands-on family science—and offers a lesson in perseverance. Family science doesn't always turn out exactly as planned, but everyone learns something along the way. Tubes, tape, and a pinhole lead to unexpected reflections of the eclipse for this family.


Positioning a pinhole projection tube takes some practice, but this kind of hands-on family science activity encourages active thinking—and troubleshooting!

Making Connections
You can springboard your experience with pinhole systems into a more extensive exploration of pinhole cameras! These Science Buddies Project Ideas can help get you started:

I am not a scientist. I am a writer who works for Science Buddies, and so I approached yesterday's eclipse not as one of my scientist colleagues might, but as a mom who tries to make science and DIY a part of everyday life for her two kids. Sometimes what we try works, but not always.

After all the research I did last week on the eclipse and on possible ways to safely view the eclipse, I wasn't sure we should even bother trying to view the eclipse. Part of me worried that my youngest would be unable to resist the temptation to look at the sun despite all my warnings of the dangers. Part of me worried that seeing a projection of the eclipse about the size of a quarter and in black and white would be anticlimactic, especially compared to the stunning full-color photos of eclipses online. But part of me, the part that is more and more attuned to the importance of taking advantage of hands-on family science opportunities like this one, felt like we shouldn't miss the chance to try our own pinhole viewer, especially since the Venus Transit in early June will also require a pinhole solution.

The Planning Stage

Before the sun rose on Sunday morning, I spent time scouring online directions, trying to figure out the most sure-fire approach—and the one most likely to work with what we had on hand. That the materials for a pinhole viewer can be scrounged up in your average basement and for little or no budget was a plus. We decided to try a tube-style pinhole projector, rather than a shoe box viewer, mostly because the Exploratorium directions I reviewed recommend a tube at least 6 feet long and offer a correlation between the tube length and the projection as approximately 1 to 1/100th—the image projected with be 1/100th of the length of the tube.

"The length of the box is important. The longer the box, the bigger the pinhole image. To find the size of the image, multiply the length of the box by the number 0.0093. If your box is 5 feet (60 inches) long, your solar image will be 60 x 0.0093 = 0.56 inches in diameter."

With this "six foot" recommendation in mind, I worried that a "shoebox," probably measuring in at about a foot and a half, would yield too small of an image to generate any real wow factor. While the directions made use of long triangular boxes, other sites suggest you can use wrapping paper tubes or similar "lengths" of cardboard tubing. Looking around the house, I spotted a few tubes in varying states of decline from having been used as a sword or bat. Game to join in the project, one of my sons turned up two empty toilet paper holders. We gathered tape, scissors, a few index cards, a sheet of cardstock, a pin, and headed to the backyard. (We couldn't find the aluminum foil for the pinhole, so we decided to test with paper and then buy foil before the official observation.)

Trial Run

Knowing that sometimes even the simplest of projects don't pan out as I expect—or as easily as directions indicate—my thought was to assemble our tube and try it out in full sun to make sure we could project an image onto paper. That way, I reasoned, we would be ready later in the day for the eclipse. Once outside, we got started. Knowing that our small backyard is a bit of a wind tunnel as it flows down the hillside from a high point in San Francisco, we taped a piece of white cardstock to a large wooden board that we use for mounting in-progress watercolor paintings. This let us put the surface on which we wanted to project our image on the ground without it blowing away either during our testing—or during what turned out to be a long session of taping!

The Exploratorium directions involve creating a pinhole covering on one end of the tube and then cutting a viewing opening into the side of the tube near the bottom, similar to the way shoe box viewer designs are constructed. The image is then projected onto the bottom wall inside the tube. With the small diameter of the wrapping paper tubes, it didn't seem likely that cutting a viewer into the tube would work or offer much viewing space. Given that you can create a basic projection with your hands or a piece of paper, we thought we might be able to project through the length of the tube and onto paper, without a side-viewing opening—and cast the image onto paper instead of into the bottom of the tube.

Exploring the Variables

At the outset, we wanted to prove to ourselves that this process "could" work before we worried about creating a bigger and better pinhole apparatus. So before we began our attempts to connect various tubes, we made a paper circle to cover the end of the sturdiest tube, taped it on, and carefully poked a pinhole. We then took turns trying to project an image through the pinhole and onto the paper. Positioning the tube precisely so that only its opening was in shadow and the small circle of light appeared on the paper can be more difficult than it sounds, but my fifth grader immediately understood how to move the tube to get it in the right place. (Throughout our testing, he had better luck with this process than i did!)

Initially dismayed by how small the projected circle was, we talked about different lengths of tubing and about different diameters of pinholes. Although everything we had read indicated we needed a very careful and small pinhole, we wondered if a larger pinhole might yield a larger projected image. We tried holes of varying sizes. We tried just a sheet of paper, knowing that one of the simplest ways to project is with a single sheet of paper and a single pinhole held above another sheet of paper. We held up a toilet paper roll and immediately cast a large circle on the paper. "But Mama, that's just pure light," insisted the oldest. Returning to our sample single tube, which was casting the expected circle, we started connecting two long tubes, adding torn index cards to help shim the slight differential in diameters, taping extra index card pieces around the seams to help block light, and adding lots and lots of tape.

Unfortunately, when you hold a six foot or longer wrapping paper tube in the air, there's a good bit of bend. That problem magnifies when one of the tubes has been played with and suffered during one battle or another. We spent a good bit of time troubleshooting stray bits of light, peering through one end or the other to ensure we could see clearly through the tube, finding a stick to knock out spider webs we discovered were partially blocking our view through the tube, and taping and retaping to try and stabilize the tube so that it wouldn't bow or collapse when we held it up high. (Note: we did not look through the tube at the sun.)

Show Time

We planned our day with the eclipse in mind, and when the optimum viewing time rolled around, we gathered our things and headed outside. The difference in trying to find the projection point with the sun so low in the sky was immediate. We had to stand much farther back from the paper than we had mid-day to position the shadow on the paper, and we had much more trouble finding the spot. Even when it seemed we had the tube's shadow positioned properly, we were not seeing the pinpoint. We were seeing the eclipse, however. We kept seeing the crescent shape that we knew meant the moon was in place, obscuring most of the sun, but we were seeing it as a result of our hands. The tiny opening of my hands around the tube was casting the eclipse image to the paper. The eclipse was in progress, but we couldn't find it with the projector.

Thinking that maybe our angle in relation to the sun, keeping in mind we are downhill with a fence rising behind us, might be causing a problem, we headed to the street and then to the top of the hill, hoping that at the clearing we would find an optimal spot. As we walked up the hill, bracing our pinhole tube projector against typical San Francisco winds, I continued my cautions about looking at the sun, more concerned than ever that the temptation would be too great once we reached the clearing and were facing the sun directly as it sat out over the ocean, which is visible from the hilltop.

We reached the clearing, turned out backs to the sun, and positioned our wooden board, which we had to move into the street to give ourselves enough room to cast the shadow. We saw the crescent over and over again, but we never did successfully see the pinhole projection. While we struggled to make it work, someone pulled up across the street in a car with solar glasses on and sat back to enjoy the solar show. Giving up on the long tube, we separated it and tried to use only the smaller length, hoping the single sturdy tube would give us an image. As we continued to struggle, another group of young adults showed up, hopped out of their car with a small shoebox projector, and immediately found pinpoint success. "There it is!" After more failed attempts to find our own image, I asked if we could take a look, and, indeed, we both saw the smaller-than-a-dime-sized crescent of the eclipse, clearly cast onto the far end of the shoebox.

Best-laid Plans

Disappointed that our hard work, testing, and planning hadn't paid off, we headed back down the hill. As we walked up the sidewalk to the house, we noticed that a neighbor's bush was casting a shadow onto the side of our house, and in every light spot, we could see a crescent. Hundreds of tiny crescents. Once upstairs again, we looked out the back window and saw a similar effect on a fence down the hill where a tree's shadow was showing the eclipse.

Our pinhole projector didn't work. As a parent, it was disheartening to have our science activity fail, and I spent a good bit of time apologizing that it hadn't worked. I know we each learned something, and that our afternoon of testing and questioning was important, but we didn't succeed, and that's frustrating. I really wanted the experience to "work." It didn't. Next time, we take what happened this time, change our approach, and try again. I haven't given up, but my son is clear that for the Venus Transit, he wants to use a shoebox.


Home again, defeated by what should have been a simple astronomy project—one perfectly suited for my DIY-minded household—I logged into Facebook. The first image I saw was from a friend who is also an elementary school teacher. Her family had created what, compared to our wrapping paper tube, seemed like a most enormous pinhole projector. Seeing it perched in the arms of a tree, I could only shake my head and laugh. Even with science, it is critical to keep everything in perspective.

When he came home from school the next day, my fifth grader reported that when they talked about their weekends, more than half the class had tried to observe the eclipse. According to their class discussion, we were not alone. Only a few of them had success with the kinds of viewers they tried to build and use. That we were at least one of the ones that had tried... matters.

When our lead scientist reviewed my experience and the trials and tribulations of our failed pinhole projector, her advice was immediate: try the shoebox version next time—and get some aluminum foil.

Venus Transit... here we come!


Intel ISEF Winners Named

Winners of the 2012 Intel ISEF have been named and the confetti thrown! Science Buddies is proud to find some of our student success stories and student volunteers among the winners.


2012 Intel ISEF winners of the Gordon E. Moor Award and the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award. Source: Society for Science & the Public

This year's top Intel ISEF winner and recipient of the Gordon E. Moore Award is Jack Andraka. The fifteen year old from Crownsville, MD, won first place for his research on the detection of pancreatic cancer. Jack developed and tested a "dip-stick sensor" test that can be used for early detection of pancreatic cancer.

Nicholas Schiefer (Pickering, Ontario, Canada) and Ari Dyckovsky (Leesburg, VA) were each named recipients of the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award. Nicholas' computer science research is on search engine technology. Ari's research is on quantum teleportation.

Science Buddies' Connections

Science Buddies extends special congratulations to Nithin Tumma, Christina Ren, and Travis Sigafoos.

  • Nithin, winner of the 2012 Intel Science Talent Search, won 2nd place at Intel ISEF in Cellular and Molecular Biology for his project, "Elucidating Pathways in Cancer Pathogenesis." Nithin, a senior at Port Huron Northern High School in Port Huron, MI, was previously a high school volunteer mentor for the Science Buddies Ask an Expert forums and was named the Craig Sander Outstanding Mentor last year.
  • Christina won 3rd place in Medicine and Health Sciences for her project, "The Effect of Deer Antler on the Proliferation of Endothelial Cells in vitro." Christina, a sophomore at Monte Vista High School in Danville, CA, has been working with Bio-Rad Laboratories' Donna Hardy, a long-time volunteer Expert in the Science Buddies Ask an Expert forums.
  • Travis won 3rd place in Behavioral and Social Sciences for his project, "Spectrum of Triangulation: ADHD, Circadian Rhythmicity, and Bipolar Symptoms." Travis, a senior at Champlin Park High School in Champlin, MN, is a current high school volunteer mentor for Science Buddies Ask an Expert forums.

While we are especially proud to see our student volunteers and students who are working with Science Buddies' mentors succeed, with over 1500 student science projects on display at the Intel ISEF this year, every student who attended deserves recognition and congratulations.

(For more about Intel ISEF, the Science Buddies Summer Fellows Program, and the importance of celebrating science successes big and small, see "Celebrating Student Science.")

Bio-Rad Laboratories is the sponsor of the Biotechnology Techniques interest area at Science Buddies.


Gear Up for the Solar Eclipse

By Kim Mullin

Safely viewing a solar eclipse takes special equipment—ask an adult for help now so you are ready!


Those who see the May 20 annular eclipse will see a ring of sun around a dark center. The above photo of the January 2011 annular eclipse was taken by the Hinode satellite. Image: NASA.

Solar Eclipse to be Visible from Most of North America on May 20

As the Earth makes its rotation on May 20, many people around the world will be in for a treat—a view of a solar eclipse! If you live in North America, be ready to witness this celestial event in the afternoon or early evening... unless you live on the East Coast. The eclipse's path won't include the eastern edge of North America, so residents there will need to visit their favorite science news outlets for pictures.

What Will You See?

A solar eclipse happens when our moon passes between Earth and the
Sun, briefly blocking our view of the Sun. There are three main types
of eclipses: total, partial, and annular. A total eclipse occurs when
the Sun and moon line up exactly, so the moon completely blocks our
view of the Sun. During a total eclipse, we can see the sun's "corona"
(a band of plasma that surrounds the sun) around the edges of the
moon. A partial eclipse occurs when the Sun and moon are not exactly
lined up, so the moon only blocks part of the Sun, temporarily making
the Sun look crescent-shaped. An annular eclipse is when the Sun and
moon are lined up, but the moon appears smaller than the Sun, so a
thin ring of the Sun is visible around the edges of the moon. Think
giant solar doughnut in the sky!

On May 20, lucky viewers, including many in the U.S., will see an annular eclipse, but most sky-watchers will see only a partial eclipse. The image below shows the timing of the eclipse for viewers in various parts of the U.S. and indicates the thin arc of the annular viewing path. You can also check NASA's interactive map to see if you will be able to see the annular eclipse, what some refer to as a solar "ring of fire."

Image: Skyandtelescope.com

You may wonder why some people will see a partial eclipse and others will see an annular eclipse when everyone is viewing the same Sun and moon. In fact, people on some parts of the globe will not see an eclipse at all on May 20. This is because people in different locations are viewing the Sun and moon at different angles. Think of it this way: you could hide from a friend by crouching behind a sofa, but if your friend started to walk around the sofa, she would see more and more of you the further around she came. Your view of this week's solar eclipse depends on where you live!

IMPORTANT REMINDER: Viewing an Eclipse Can Be Dangerous

Never look at the sun or an eclipse directly with your eyes. Doing so can cause permanent blindness or other severe damage. According to Jane Houston Jones of NASA, "Though only six percent of the sun's surface will be visible at greatest eclipse, it will still be 60,000 times brighter than the full moon and will damage your eyes if you look directly at it." According to experts, you need to "filter out more than 99% of the Sun's light before it reaches your eyes." Even so, from solar-viewing glasses to special telescope filters, or even a "projection" of the eclipse onto another surface, there are safe viewing techniques if you plan ahead. Sky and Telescope's article about how to safely view a solar eclipse can help you understand your options.


The Goods on Glucose

Depending on your age and your weight, you might stop, spoon poised, and fleetingly think twice about your loaded triple-fudge and caramel brownie sundae with extra candy sprinkles—just before you dig in. Whether you finish off the sundae alone or not, it's impossible to escape awareness of the debates that rage on about the nutritional dangers of too much sugar. But it isn't as simple as simply saying "no" to a spoonful of sugar here and there. When it comes to sugar and the body, there's more to consider than just after-dinner dessert or a plate of morning pancakes loaded with syrup. How long it takes the body to process the sugar you take in has a lot to do with how good or bad a food may be for you and your bloodstream. Experimenting with a plant-based enzyme can help students peer inside the digestion process.


For people with diabetes, especially Type 1 Diabetes, the level of glucose in the blood has to be constantly monitored. Too much or too little glucose can lead to health problems, but even people without diabetes need to be aware of blood sugar issues. Understanding how glucose is created in the body—and how sugars in foods are converted to glucose—can make nutritional labels make more sense. How much do you know about sugars? The plant-based enzyme, invertase, helps students look under the lid to see what's going on inside the digestive process.

Opinions vary, but many parents argue that sugar makes their kids hyper, cranky, or less focused. Some adults even admit to post-sugar blues, and while your common approach to an afternoon slump might be to grab a candy bar, nutritionists will tell you that protein is a better choice to rev up a flagging brain. In recent years, sugar has become a pariah for healthy eating advocates, health practitioners, and many parents. In reaction to the outcry against sugar and carbohydrates, numerous fad diets have made the rounds as the public searches for the key to healthy eating.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Most agree that too much sugar isn't good for any of us at any age. That doesn't necessarily mean no sugar. It doesn't necessarily mean eating only protein. It may or may not work out that eliminating all white foods from your diet is a sure-fire approach to nutritional health.

While there are clear culprits in the sugar game and obvious sources of unnecessary sugar overload lining grocery store shelves and household pantries and snack drawers, the reality is that sugar, in all its forms, and combined with overeating and less active lifestyles, has contributed to an increasing number of people who either have Type 2 diabetes and know about it, have Type 2 diabetes and don't yet realize it, or are considered pre-diabetic. Type 2 Diabetes is a metabolic condition in which the body fails to effectively convert glucose to energy.1 The problem centers around the body's production and use of insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps regulate the level of glucose in the blood.

According to the American Diabetes Association, 25.8 million people in the U.S. have diabetes. That number, which includes both children and adults, represents 8.3% of the U.S. population.2 Complications and conditions caused by, or connected to, diabetes are wide-ranging. Blindness, kidney failure, and heart disease are among the many health conditions linked to diabetes, and diabetes is a factor in more than half of all non-traumatic lower-limb amputations.

The numbers are startling and dramatic, and while the search for a "cure" for big name killers is always on the front burner, diabetes is a silent but far-reaching and growing health problem in the U.S. and comes in at number seven on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) list of leading causes of death. Treatment for Type 2 Diabetes, in large part, often begins with nutrition, and the more you know about "sugar" and the body, the better. Avoiding refined sugars like those found in a candy bar or lollipop isn't enough. Instead, it's important to understand how the body processes sugars, how long it takes for glucose to clear from the blood stream after eating, and what slows down or speeds up the process.

Glucose in the Body

Sucrose, the white sugar commonly used in baking, is one of several kinds of sugars, all of which are carbohydrates. During digestion, sucrose and other carbohydrates (like starch) are broken down to create glucose and fructose, basic carbohydrates that are then digested and absorbed into the intestines. When glucose is being created from food that has been taken into the body, the level of glucose in the blood rises. It is the pancreas's job to monitor and respond to the blood glucose level. If the level is high, the pancreas releases insulin to instruct cells to remove glucose from the blood and store it for energy; if the blood glucose level drops, the pancreas stops releasing insulin, signaling that the body should use stored glucose. It's a delicate balance. (For someone with Type 1 Diabetes, this balancing act is especially important and requires 24-hour monitoring to ensure blood sugars are kept within certain ranges. Tip the glucose or insulin scales one way or the other, and serious problems can arise.)

While reading labels and monitoring the intake of sugars can help you be more aware of food choices, the rate of digestion of sugars and carbohydrates differs. As a result, the impact of sugars in two different foods may not be the same on the body. Students can't easily monitor digestion and glucose production in a human body, but by using invertase, an enzyme that catalyzes the same reaction in plants and yeast as sucrase does in the human body, students can simulate and explore the breakdown of sugars and what the process reveals about various types of foods.

Invertase in Action

The "Sucrose & Glucose & Fructose, Oh My! Uncovering Hidden Sugar in Your Food" project from the Medical Biotechnology interest area of the Science Buddies Project Ideas Library gives students a blueprint for conducting a biotechnology investigation of the relationship between the concentration of sugars in common foods, the time involved in converting those sugars to glucose, and the amount of glucose digested. Using invertase, students can test various foods to observe, firsthand, glucose concentration levels both before and after the enzyme is added. As a result of this investigation, students will better understand what foods are good when someone needs a glucose boost, what foods convert to glucose faster than others, and which foods have a minimal impact on blood glucose levels. The "How Sweet It Is! Measuring Glucose in Your Food" project offers a less advanced science project that explores glucose concentration in fruits and juices—minus the simulated digestion.

Before you sit down with that next triple fudge sundae, you might give an extra moment of thought to the glucose involved. You may not see it lurking in the cherry on top, but your body views sugar as more than simply a sweet treat. It's a complicated biochemical process, and the more you understand what's going on, the more educated choices you can make!

1. Unlike Type 2 Diabetes, Type 1 Diabetes is an auto-immune disease in which the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin are killed off and the pancreas no longer makes insulin. Individuals with Type 1 Diabetes must take insulin every day to stay alive.

2. Development of the "Sucrose & Glucose & Fructose, Oh My! Uncovering Hidden Sugar in Your Food" project was sponsored by Norvo Nordisk.

* U.S. diabetes statistics are from the National Diabetes Fact Sheet, released January 26, 2011 by the Centers for Disease Control.

Celebrating Student Science

The 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) kicks off today! According to the Society for Science & the Public, more than 1,500 high school students from all over the world will be on hand in Pittsburgh this week to show off their projects and compete for more than three million dollars in awards.


Blake and Matthew, winners of the 2011 Intel ISEF, are featured on the cover of this year's Intel ISEF program.

To follow along with this week's Intel ISEF proceedings, tune in to the following sites, galleries, and social media streams:

Students who qualify to attend the Intel ISEF represent the pinnacle of this year's student research and innovation. The path to the Intel ISEF is often a long road of research, experimentation, and a chain of fairs beginning with a local or school fair. For those who compete in advanced competitions like the Intel ISEF, the Intel Science and Talent Search, or the Broadcom MASTERS, public recognition tends to follow. These students' stories make the local papers and news reports, and when the winners are announced at the Intel ISEF later this week, names, schools, research topics, and prize amounts will buzz through social media streams as we all celebrate the top of the top in K-12 science.

More than Makes the Board

The stories behind the projects on display are often wonderful and engaging dramas that represent the highs and lows of the scientific process. The project display boards lining the exhibition center in Pittsburgh, PA this week showcase each project along a defined set of points that follow the scientific method. From across the room, you might be able to read the project's title. At closer range, you can peruse the hypothesis, conclusion, and summary data charts, but there is often much more to the story than can be contained in the standard 36" x 48" trifold board—more science and more human interest.

The Student Behind the Science Project

The sophisticated projects on display at a fair like the Intel ISEF are not always ones immediately accessible to the general audience. These are not your average school science fair projects, but the students behind them, the students answering questions from judges and passersby, the students passionate about their area of research, their findings, and the possible future applications of their work are still students. When given a bit more attention and depth, students' stories, like those chronicled in Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch... and What It Takes to Win, by Judy Dutton or the WhizKids documentary, offer readers and viewers an inside look at what it is like to be a top student science student, where these students find inspiration for their ideas and projects, and what it feels like to compete on a global level. These stories are often inspiring, eye-opening, and, at times, heartwrenching.

Stories Big and Small

Many of these stories represent the epitome of scientific achievement among K-12 students, but stories of scientific accomplishment unfold every day at schools and science fairs around the country. We hope you spotted write-ups of local fair winners in your area over the last few months. We hope that your student's science fair was well-attended, well-supported by the local community, and that the students who participated got the chance for their hard work to shine, regardless of whether or not a ribbon was awarded. We hope that your student learned something from her project or explored a new area of science. Maybe the process sparked interest in asking another question, researching another angle, or simply participating again next year with another science investigation.

To every student that conducted a science project this year, to every student that put the scientific method in action, to every student that learned something, hands-on, about a scientific principle, we say congratulations!

Make a note!

Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch... and What It Takes to Win, by Judy Dutton, tells the story of a number of top science fair participants. This is a great summer read for parents, teachers, and students!

We'll be watching as this year's Intel ISEF unfolds over the next few days. It's an exciting event, and Science Buddies staff will be meeting with many students who are presenting. There will be astounding projects on display, and we know the stories behind those projects may be equally inspiring and exciting. But we are excited by all of your stories and successes, and we are proud to be an integral and trusted resource for students looking for science project ideas and for science project information and for teachers, organizations, and parents who are dedicated to encouraging and supporting science, technology, education, and math education (STEM). Every science project can make a difference in a student's approach to science.

A Local Fair

The Contra Costa County Science & Engineering Fair (CCCSEF) is developing a track record for showcasing and recognizing projects that go on to succeed at higher-level competitions. In 2011, the winners of CCCSEF, Blake Marggraff and Matthew Feddersen, went on to sweep top honors at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Blake and Matthew then joined Science Buddies in the summer of 2011 as part of our first group of Summer Fellows. You can learn more about their research and winning project in this write-up that documents how their weekend experiments evolved into the construction of a homemade X-ray machine—and the grand prize at the 2011 Intel ISEF.

This year, the students moving on to the 2012 Intel ISEF by virtue of top placement at CCCSEF are Christina Ren (10th grade, Monte Vista High School), Eric Sauer (11th grade, Dougherty Valley High School), and Raymond Zhu (12th Grade, Monte Vista High School). Other winners at the 2012 CCCSEF went on to show their projects at Broadcom MASTERS and at the California State Science Fair. Aryo Sorayya, an 11th grade student at Monte Vista High School, displayed his project, "Overcoming the Cold Chain: Designing a Novel Freeze-Stable Vaccine," at CCCSEF and went on to be named the grand-prize winner last week at the 61st California State Science Fair.

Over the last several years, CCCSEF coordinators have watched the fair continue to grow, a trend celebrated and encouraged by support from the community, including organizations like Chevron and Bio-Rad Laboratories, both of which issue special awards at the fair. This year, Matthew Brewer and Brooke Parker, students at Acalanes High School, won Chevron Innovation and John Muir Health special awards for their team project, "Effectiveness of Acne Vulgaris Treatments Using EColi Bacteria." Tiffany Zhou, a student at Heritage High School, and a student mentor in the Science Buddies Ask an Expert forums, received a Chevron Innovation award for her project, "Investigating Biocontrol of Canker Diseases." Other winners of Chevron Innovation awards include: Nicholas Kaufman (NorthCreek Aacademy), Zidaan Dutta (Pine Valley Middle School), and Zachary Cannon (NorthCreek Academy).

Bio-Rad Laboratories special awards were presented to Raymond Zhu (Monte Vista High School) for his project, "Evaluating the interaction between LRRK2 and NMAP as a pathway to neuronal degeneration in Parkinson's Disease," and to Dhuvarakesh Karthikeyan (Iron Horse Middle School) for "MFCs-Step 1 to self-sufficient planet."

Chevron is the sponsor of the Geology interest area at Science Buddies.

Bio-Rad Laboratories is the sponsor of the Biotechnology Techniques interest area.


Personal Genetics and Prescription Drugs

A single DNA mutation you don't even know you have may determine whether or not the medication your doctor prescribed will work for you.

Image: Bigstock

Due to differences in individual genetic makeup, prescription medications may work differently for different people. Online pharmacogenomics databases help document the relationship between genetic mutation and pharmaceuticals.
When you catch a cold, you might reach for an over-the-counter product to help relieve symptoms like nasal congestion, itchy eyes, or a sore throat. If your symptoms are more severe, you may end up at the doctor and go home with a prescription for a stronger medication. According to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study between 2007 and 2008, almost half the U.S. population had taken at least one prescription drug in the month prior to being surveyed. That approximately 48% of the U.S. had "recently" used a prescription medication is an eye-opening statistic. Even keeping in mind that many prescriptions are prescribed to treat a specific, short-term condition, the numbers indicate that there are a lot of pills being counted out and swallowed each day to treat and safeguard against a variety of illnesses and health problems.

No Guarantees

Pharmacies often provide counseling, warnings, and helpful information about various potential side effects of specific medications. Patients who take more than one medication are also alerted when a possible problem exists between medications, and they should not be taken together. Patients are also routinely counseled to be sure and finish the prescribed course of medication, even if they start to feel better before they run out of the medicine. This is particularly true with antibiotics. Taking the complete course of an antibiotic helps reduce the risk of new and drug-resistant forms of bacteria developing. But even if you take only one medication, take it completely, and follow all the directions, the prescription drug you take home from the pharmacy may not work for you the way the pharmaceutical company claims it will or the way your doctor expects.

Pharmaceutical companies develop drugs to treat specific conditions. For example, Atorvastatin is used to help lower cholesterol, and Clopidogrel helps prevent blood clots. Based on extensive testing and research, drugs like these are marketed and prescribed for patients. While generalizations can be drawn about the application and effectiveness of a medication, the reality is that there will likely be exceptions. Maybe you've noticed that when you pick up a medication at the pharmacy that there is typically a sheet containing a list of possible side effects and warning signs. Similarly, when you see a commercial on television for a drug, there is always a bunch of really fast talk at the end (often accompanied by some 'fine print' on the screen) that makes clear that things can go wrong. Sometimes it seems that this laundry list of possible complications includes almost every possible symptom one can imagine. The warnings can be frightening, and it's clear that drug companies can't guarantee that their medication will work for you—or won't cause a problem.

So what's going on? Why are there so many precautions and discussions of side effects? If a pill is supposed to cure problem X, Y, or Z, can't you simply swallow it with a cup of water and let the pill do its work?

Medications and Your Genes

How your body responds to a particular drug may depend on your genes. In other words, something in your DNA may make you more or less responsive to a drug and more or less likely to have an adverse or atypical reaction. Your personal genome contains 20,000 to 25,000 genes, and each of those genes contains hundreds to millions of DNA nucleotides. When you do the math—20,000 genes multiplied by x nucleotides—it is not hard to imagine that there is plenty of room for anomaly or mutation within a single person's genome. It might be easy to think that with all those nucleotides at work, one mutation won't really make a difference. But, in fact, a single change in DNA sequence may affect the way a specific prescription drug will work for you.

Making Connections

The study of the relationship between genetics and the biological interactions stimulated by prescription medications is called pharmacogenomics. In the "Drugs & Genetics: Why Do Some People Respond to Drugs Differently than Others?" project, students can learn more about the connections between certain kinds of mutations called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), biological signaling pathways, the cellular proteins with which a drug might interact, and the effectiveness of a drug. In this Project Idea from the Medical Biotechnology interest area, students choose a drug of interest and then use an online pharmacogenomics database to investigate the ways in which genetic mutations interfere, specifically, with the function of that drug.

Project Ideas in Medical Biotechnology are sponsored by support from the Amgen Foundation.

Science Buddies and Astellas Announce Chemistry Contest Winners

By Kim Mullin

The winners of the Rosalind Franklin Chemistry Contest, sponsored by Science Buddies and the Astellas USA Foundation, have been determined!


Rosalind Elsie Franklin was an important female chemist whose research using x-ray diffraction helped lead to the identification of the structure of DNA. Through this contest, Astellas hoped to inspire young scientists, and females in particular, to pursue chemistry research and careers.
Students Receive Honors

Students in grades 6-12 submitted chemistry, food science, or biotechnology projects of their own design or completed one from the Science Buddies library of Project Ideas. Judges were looking for projects exhibiting imagination, scientific thought, thoroughness, skill, and clarity.

The winning entries are as follows:

Female in Grades 6-8: Abigail G. Erickson, Grade 8, Virgil I Grissom Middle School Project: "The Effect of Water Temperature and pH on Seashell Decalcification"

Male in Grades 6-8: Matthew Early, Grade 6, Abraham Lincoln Elementary School Project: "Catalyst Eases Hydrogen's Break From Water"

Female in Grades 9-12: Suchita Nety, Grade 11, The Harker School Project: "Investigation of Synthetic Bioadhesive Hydrogels for Internal Medical Use"

Male in Grades 9-12: Joseph Le Grade, Grade 11 and Alberto Diaz, Grade 12, Oak Grove High School Project: "Super Hydrophobicity"

Judges "Thrilled" with High Caliber of Student Projects

The contest submissions were judged by a team of Science Buddies staff members and volunteers, including Donna Hardy of Bio-Rad Laboratories; Andrew Bonham, Assistant Professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver; Kierstyn Schwartz, a graduate student at the University of Chicago; and David Bateman, Professor of Chemistry at Henderson State University.

Commenting on the entries, Sandra Slutz, Science Buddies' lead scientist, said, "I am thrilled at the high caliber of the chemistry projects we received. Across the board, it is clear that the students worked hard, spent time researching the topics, and really stuck with their projects even when they encountered experimental problems and had to troubleshoot or even start over."

Bonham, who reviewed submissions in the Grades 9-12 category, agreed, saying, "I was truly impressed by the quality of the submissions to this contest—both in terms of content and presentation. If I hadn't been told beforehand that these were submissions from high school students, I honestly would have assumed this was undergraduate research by junior or senior level students." Donna Hardy, a volunteer Expert in Science Buddies' Ask an Expert forums, who has assisted students with a wide range of science projects over the past few years, including many working on ISEF-level research, also expressed her high opinion of the entries and the caliber of chemistry displayed.

Contest Inspires and Encourages Future Scientists

When the contest was announced in early February, Collette Taylor, president of the Astellas USA Foundation, pointed out that, "The future of scientific innovation in health and medicine resides in our youth," and was certain that she would not be disappointed by the contest entries. Slutz feels that the entries met Taylor's expectations, saying, "The 9-12 category projects were particularly impressive. There were a number of students working on innovative, original, university-level research ranging from creating and analyzing new medical glues (like Dermabond) to working on the synthesis of new nanoparticles for eventual use in miniaturized electrical circuitry."

Science Buddies and Astellas are proud to have sponsored such a successful competition. Said judge Schwartz, "These projects had an impressive level of creativity and scientific thought. The students should be very proud of what they have accomplished."

Congratulations to the winners and to all who entered!


Success Story: The Science of Video Games

Three years in a row, this fifth grader has turned his interest in video games into a winning science investigation. For Xavier, a new science project assignment is a great opportunity to learn about another aspect of game design and development—and have fun at the same time. Game on!


Xavier Downey (above) is a veteran science fair winner. Exploring various angles of science related to video game play and video game design, Xavier has made the leader boards at local science fairs three years in a row—and had fun in the process! Read about other student science successes in the Science Buddies in Action area.
When it comes to cutting-edge science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, a lot of weight is being thrown into turning the student-generation's engagement with video games into a direct conduit for scientific exploration and innovation. Rather than forcing kids to turn off the games, companies like AMD, through their AMD Changing the Game Initiative, and other proponents of Change the Equation, advocate encouraging students to dig in deep and explore various angles of game design, game mechanics, and game play. If students, teachers, and parents all come to the video game playing field with an understanding that there're a lot to learn from playing games, the win-win combination can score big points for students in terms of science education and in sparking new interest in science and technology.

Science Buddies in Action

Xavier Downey, a fifth grade student in Hesperia, CA, is an avid gamer. He's into current versions of Pokémon and enjoys going to bat in Mario Super Sluggers. Despite his affinity for his DS and Wii, at eleven, Xavier is also a veteran science fair participant. What stands out about Xavier's science fair history is that his last three science fair projects have all been about video game-related topics. Beyond simply turning "game" into schoolwork, Xavier has taken top honors each year at both his school and district fairs, showing that while the science of gaming can be fun, the projects students pursue in this area can go head-to-head with science projects in other, more traditional, areas of science.

Xavier and his mom are big fans of Science Buddies. After discovering the Science Buddies website at the onset of his third grade project, they've returned each year to search for a hot gaming topic for the science fair and to use Science Buddies resources for guidance, including the Ask an Expert forums. From Xavier's perspective, Science Buddies has given him an edge in terms of developing and completing competitive and successful projects. He's understandably excited about all those first place ribbons, but he's even more enthusiastic about the fact that with each of his projects, he's gotten to explore the science behind something he loves—video games.

"The best part of all is that the projects I chose to do were all video-game-related science projects! I got to play video games and do school work at the same time! I actually wanted to do school work and research all the time for my science projects," says Xavier. "I couldn't have done it without the help of Science Buddies. Learning has never been so much fun!"

A Gamer's Science Fair

Using the Topic Selection Wizard, Xavier turned up his first video game project in 2010. The "Sweating the Score: Can Video Games Be a Form of Exercise?" project let him explore, firsthand, whether or not popular "exercise" games (exergames), a genre advanced by the availability of platforms like the Wii and Kinect, actually qualify as exercise for players. He followed that project with "No Pain, Lots of Game" in 2011, a project that investigates game-playing as an alternative to medications for pain management.

With two gaming projects behind him, with human physiology and neurology components, respectively, Xavier tackled another question related to video games this year in the "Out of Control" project. In this project, Xavier switched his attention to game design and hardware and compared the effectiveness of controllers that mimic their intended functionality (like a steering wheel for a car racing game) to traditional controllers.


Parents and Teachers: Supporting Video Game Projects

Xavier's mom has been a big supporter of his gaming science projects. Parents don't always immediately see that a student's love of games can be turned into a project that uses the scientific method, but after three years of watching Xavier's projects unfold—and watching him immerse himself in background research this year to better understand the topic—Xavier's mom has no doubt of the value of science projects that use video games as a foundation.

"Before I would never think this area would actually be a science project," Xavier's mom admits. "But now, I think it is very interesting how science and video games can go hand in hand and be useful and such a fun learning experience for kids. I think nowadays gaming and computer technology are important to the future and advancement of the world."

The following Science Buddies resources are designed to help teachers and parents support video game-based science projects and exploration:

As Xavier learned, traditional control schemes use an "abstract" interface in which players use a series of buttons or directional sequences and combinations to achieve on-screen effects. To successfully play the game, these controls have to be learned (and memorized). Diehard gamers may find these controls instinctive, as they often build upon familiar controls from other games, but such controls can be confusing and difficult to master for new gamers. In an attempt to lower the learning curve and reach a wider audience, game development companies have introduced new interfaces that involve "natural mapping." The idea is that if you know how to play tennis on a real court, then clicking a tennis racket-shaped attachment to your remote and swinging it to play a game of tennis can be easier to learn and more inviting to play because the action mimics reality.

Gaming for Everyone

Xavier's background research on video game history gave him a better understanding of the ways in which game controllers have rapidly changed as the gaming industry has grown. "I learned exactly how far video game controllers have changed from the first one-button joysticks to [the] motion sensing remotes of today," says Xavier. With that history in mind, and with an understanding of the differences between natural and abstract mapping schemes, Xavier put his hypothesis that natural mapping control schemes make it easier for a non-gamer to learn a game—and result in higher scores—to the test. Recruiting the help from non-gamers in his family, including his parents, aunts, and uncles, and armed with his knowledge of game control theory, Xavier had his volunteers play a Wii-based racing game that uses a steering wheel.

After analyzing the data he gathered while observing his family members play the game, Xavier found that his testing supported his hypothesis. "This year I learned that a video game controller that mimics a real-life action makes it easier and faster for an inexperienced video game player to learn the video game, rather than trying to remember what button does what using a push-button traditional video game controller," he explains. His experiment encouraged Xavier to step out of the role of player and look at the big picture driving video game design and development. Based on his testing and observations, he has some insight into where gaming may be headed. "Technology continues to improve and advance," says Xavier. "This project showed me [that] motion-based controllers are the future of gaming," he adds, noting that controllers and control schemes have already evolved since the introduction of the first motion sensor remotes.

A Winning Combination

Continuing his string of science fair successes, Xavier's fifth grade project won first place at both his school and district science fairs. He also won a gold medal in the fifth grade division at his county fair, the RIMS Inland Science and Engineering Fair. In addition to the academic success, Xavier's experiment also had another winning outcome. Because of his project, some of his "non-gamer" family members realized that gaming can actually be a lot of fun. "After having so much fun playing [the racing] game, my Mom, my Aunt, and my Grandma all think video games are fun," enthuses Xavier. "And now we have Wii Sports bowling competitions!"

For Xavier, video game science projects give him the chance to really dive into a topic of interest, even as he explores different areas of science, engineering, and human behavior. "The best part of my project was that it gave me an excuse to have to play video games—it's for school! I was having fun, learning, [and] doing a science experiment and school work all at the same time."

Project Ideas in the Video & Computer Games interest area are sponsored by support from the AMD Foundation.
AMD Changing the Game

Tile image: Bigstock

Science and Art: Mutant Sunflowers

Variations in gene expression can lead to anomalies in flowers. Some of Van Gogh's sunflowers were of a mutant variety, and scientists recently tracked down genes that may be responsible.


When we think of a sunflower, many of us think of a bright yellow flower with a large, dark center, like the one shown above. In Van Gogh's famous serious of sunflower paintings, there are typical sunflowers intermixed with a few mutant ones. These mutant sunflowers posed a puzzle for plant scientists, but recent plant genetics research has uncovered the gene responsible.
Like famous scientists or inventors, many famous artists are most identifiable in popular consciousness for a small number of notable works or biographical facts. Everyone associates Ben Franklin, for example, with kites, electricity, and bifocals. But a study of his life reveals scores of other interesting details, inventions, and associations. Newton? An apple, of course. When you think of Michelangelo, you likely think of the Sistine Chapel, and maybe the Pietà. When you think of Mozart, you certainly hear "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" in your head, along with, maybe, "Eine kleine Nachtmusik." Beethoven? Surely "Ode to Joy" becomes your theme song for the day. A scholar or enthusiast in a particular area would certainly know much more about an artist, author, scientist, or historical figure. But the public mind tends to hold onto something bite-sized, something that would fit into a piece of colored pie in the once-popular game of Trivial Pursuit.

Ask someone who Van Gogh was, and you are likely to hear one of two responses: he cut off his ear, or didn't he paint sunflowers? You might also catch an enlightened Starry Night over the Rhone reference, but, in truth, despite thousands of paintings, Van Gogh may be most well-known for his sunflower paintings, a series for which the most characteristic paintings were created in Arles, France in 1888 and 1889. Each painting in the intensely yellow and orange series expressively captures sunflowers in a vase and depicts flowers at various stages of the growth cycle. Though the number of sunflowers varies in the seven sunflower paintings from Arles, several of the paintings are very similar, only minute differences appearing between them.

A Scientific Conundrum

When I first spotted news stories (like this one from Nature) about the "mystery" of Van Gogh's sunflowers being scientifically resolved, I was surprised that there had been a "need" to solve a mystery about genetic ambiguity in a plant that appears in a painting, particularly in a painting from an expressionist painter. As an artist, not a scientist, I wanted to advocate appreciating and respecting the fact that a painter can, and often does, paint something that approximates reality but diverges from it. A painter may paint both what she sees and what she feels, and the combination of those realities, may yield something that doesn't exactly mirror reality. In other words, Van Gogh's painted sunflower doesn't have to look exactly like the sunflower he had in front of him. But, from the angle of science, if the flower Van Gogh painted looks like the one he had in front of him in 1888, the question of the flower's botanical evolution and history is intriguing because some of Van Gogh's flowers are not "typical" sunflowers.

Floral Symmetry

To make sense of what triggered the research—or the association with Van Gogh—I first had to get a better understanding of "why" the sunflowers in the paintings stand out as such anomalies to plant scientists. If you are of the "a sunflower is a sunflower" persuasion, you might look at one of Van Gogh's sunflower paintings and not see anything out of the ordinary. But a botanist immediately spots an interesting problem—not all of the flowers have the large dark center that is characteristic of a sunflower. Understanding the importance of this visual difference requires taking a step backward to look at the organization and symmetry of flowers in general—and the peculiar symmetry of sunflowers.

When it comes to symmetry, most flowers fall into one of two categories and demonstrate either radial symmetry or bilateral symmetry. In a flower with radial symmetry, you can rotate the flower, and the arrangement of petals continues to appear the same. This pattern is seen in "round"-faced flowers like water lilies and buttercups. Bilateral symmetry, on the other hand, occurs when the two sides of a flower (left and right of an imaginary middle line) mirror each other. An orchid is a classic floral example of bilateral symmetry, but it's easy to visualize this arrangement by thinking of the human face, which is symmetrical along a middle line that divides the nose in half. (Turn the face upside down, and you know the orientation is wrong!)

The interesting thing about a sunflower is that it contains both radial and bilateral symmetry. What appear to be "petals" in the outer ring are actually small flowers, or ray florets, which are bilaterally symmetrical. The dark inner ring, on the other hand, is a cluster of radially symmetrical disk florets. The florets in the center will be fertilized during the life-cycle of the flower, filling the center with seeds. So that's a classical sunflower: an outer ring of small infertile flowers surrounding a large center ring of florets that produce seeds. Now, look again at Van Gogh's sunflowers. Some of them, indeed, sport the familiar dark center. But others do not. The "other" flowers are referred to as double-flowered mutants and contain no center array of disk florets. (The opposite is also possible, mutants which contain only the dark disk florets.)

These mutant sunflowers sparked the research of Mark Chapman and colleagues at the University of Georgia. The team recently published results in PLoS Genetics titled "Genetic Analysis of Floral Symmetry in Van Gogh's Sunflowers Reveals Independent Recruitment of CYCLOIDEA Genes in the Asteraceae." The paper reveals their findings that Van Gogh's mutant flowers show a mis-expression of a CYCLOIDEA-like gene (HaCYC2c) responsible for symmetry in sunflowers. Over-expression of the same gene produces an opposite effect and yields tubular-rayed mutant sunflowers. According to Chapman and team's research, the gene responsible for Van Gogh's sunflowers and other "teddy bear" varieties that lack the dark center, appears to have evolved independently of similar genes in other members of the Asteraceae family (to which the sunflower belongs).


Image from the study published in PLoS Genetics.

"Entire inflorescences (A, C, E) and individual florets (B, D, F) from wildtype (A, B), double-flowered (C, D) and tubular (E, F) sunflower individuals. Florets are arranged left to right from the inner florets to the outer florets. (G) "Sunflowers (Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers)" by Vincent van Gogh (1888) with double-flowered heads pointed out with arrows. Panel G was obtained from Steve Dorrington on flickr (available at http://flic.kr/p/8SsPYb) and is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License."

Making Connections

Students curious about the experimentation and research that enabled Chapman and his team to investigate questions about the development of these mutant sunflowers can learn more by delving into both the basics of genetics and the fundamentals of cross-breeding and hybridization in plant biology. As part of their study, the team reportedly cross-bred a number of varieties of sunflowers to track genes that might be responsible for double-flowering.

To begin understanding the ways in which the gene expression occurs, students can explore Mendelian traits in the "Pedigree Analysis: A Family Tree of Traits" Project Idea. This project deals with human characteristics, not plant biology, but the study offers an entry point for students to begin exploring principles of heredity and gene expression. Mendel's early research was on peas. Later research cross-breeding varieties of flowers furthered understanding of dominant and recessive genes.

Art and Science

Whether you approach Van Gogh's paintings as purely an observer or as a scientist or an expert in plant biology, you may never look at the sunflowers the same again. And the next time you drive by a local flower stand and see baskets of sunflowers, chances are you'll notice if there are any mutants in the crowd!

Science Buddies Project Ideas in Genetics and Genomics are sponsored by the Life Technologies Foundation.

Parent Perspective: Understanding Your Role in Your Student's Science Project

Watching kids trying to create super bubbles reinforces the importance of hands-on learning for this science mom—and reminds her that parents should watch but not take over.

Image: Bigstock.

A trip to the science museum strikes a chord for a science mom contemplating her role as a parent supporting her son as he tackles his first school science project. Interested in exploring bubble science with your students? Blow the Best Bubbles from Scientific American's Bring Science Home section features a family-friendly version of the Bubble-ology Science Buddies Project Idea.

Last week I was at a local science museum with my kids. As they explored a nearby exhibit, I sat on a bench to wait and ended up watching a group of students who were crowded around a table filled with giant bubble solution and a variety of metal rings. This hands-on exhibit is a perennial favorite. One of my sons always ends up stationed here, and despite the generous size of the table, which invites and enables several kids to get their hands in the bubble liquid at a time, there is always a crowd. For kids of all ages, it seems there is something irresistible about bubbles, especially the allure of creating giant ones. But it's a process that can be more difficult than it looks.

Time and time again, as I watched, kids swished their rings around in the liquid, lifted, and pulled, hoping to drag a ring full of solution from the tray and release an amazing bubble into the air. From where I sat, it was easy to see when someone was pulling too quickly or at the wrong angle. There's definitely a try and try-again mentality needed to figure out what works and what doesn't. As an adult, I felt certain I could have gone over, swirled a ring in the liquid, and pulled up a giant bubble. I probably couldn't have, but I'm sure other parents watching over their children's shoulders felt the same thing. I could see it in their faces. Some of them clearly wanted to step in, to put their own hands on the rings, to guide the process to an exciting conclusion—a beautiful bubble.

But for the student, the hands-on process of interacting with the bubble solution, maneuvering the metal rings, and experimenting with the timing and angle of their movements to find the balance necessary to successfully lift a ring full of the solution from the table and create a bubble is a wonderful learning opportunity. Left to explore, to troubleshoot what was happening when the bubbles popped instantly or when none of the liquid stayed on the rings, gave them the chance to question, to problem solve, to hypothesize (even in their heads), to test (try again), and to learn (whether they realized it or not). Stepping in and creating a wonderful bubble for them might garner some oohs and ahhs, but it wouldn't offer the same moment of experiential learning.

An Important Reminder for Parents

Sitting there and watching the maneuverings at the bubble table was a wonderful diversion. I leaned forward many times, breath held, hoping for a bubble to succeed, and when one of my sons took his place at the table, I watched as he tried several times. I watched, too, as he stopped and watched another kid, a few years older, who was successfully creating some spectacular glycerin displays. My son watched, and then tried again, clearly trying to deduce the difference between that student's technique and his own. From my vantage, it seemed the difference might have something to do with where they were positioned around the table—and possibly from which direction air might have been circulating. I did try and get his attention to suggest he move around the table when another spot opened up, but otherwise, I just watched, enjoyed the momentary pit stop on the bench, and thought about how important it is for parents to support the scientific process without taking over.

Tearing Tape

When we moved to the Tinkering Studio where the kids build marble runs by connecting a variety of odds-and-ends to a peg board, my involvement was needed by one of my sons. He needed me to stand nearby and tear masking tape. That was all. With a marble run, you can test as you add each new element and make adjustments to ensure the marble drops through, finds the next tube, funnel, or railway, and continues to the next step. When something doesn't work out, you move it, alter the angle, change the distance, tighten the tape or holding pegs, or you try another arrangement. He didn't need me to solve what wasn't working. What he needed was a person who could tear tape. The design, the learning, the ultimate vision, and the invention of steps necessary to bring the marble run to fruition were his tasks—and he was up to the challenge.

A Take-Away Lesson

An afternoon at the science museum is always fun for them. Whether they spend time at favorite exhibits or try new ones, they always find plenty to excite and inspire them. They always touch, feel, see, observe, and, most importantly, ask questions. But our afternoon in the giant repurposed airplane hangar where the museum sits was important for me as well. My oldest student is doing his very first school science project this year. For the first time, I am a parent overseeing my own student's science project, most of which needs to be completed at home. On paper, I know the boundaries. I know where to draw the line. I know how the process should go. But when it's your own student, the entire issue of parent involvement takes on new life, and the stumbling blocks seem very clear.

Being the parent supporting and shepherding a student's science project is an interesting position, but it can be a difficult one for parents because it's far too easy to be too involved or too controlling. It's also easy to expect too much, and it can be tempting, sometimes, to try and guide a student's interest during the selection process into an area of parental interest (or expertise). In reality, when a student chooses a project that is about something in which she is interested, and chooses a project that is appropriate for her grade level, skill set, and assignment, she should be able to do most of the project on her own. She may need you to sign the credit card slip for supplies or chauffer her around for materials or a research trip to the library. She may need help with safety steps and with planning. But mostly, her science project should be one she can do independently. Even if a parent itches to be more involved, really, the best thing to do might be to stand back and tear the tape.

A Focus on Hands-on Science

With all of the national attention on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in recent months, chances are higher than ever before that your K-12 student will be required to do a science project, most of which will be conducted out of the classroom. Given the importance of engaging in hands-on science exploration, this is a wonderful opportunity for students to investigate a scientific question, formulate a hypothesis, run an experiment, and see what happens. As Courtney Corda, Science Buddies Vice President and "Science Mom" recently wrote in an article on parent involvement for PBS Parents, "When your child works on a science project, she is putting the scientific method into action and learning more about how to actively understand the world around her. Her assignment is clear, but as a parent, how involved should you be?"

Science Buddies' Helping at the Right Level at Every Step chart is designed to help parents better understand how to successfully support and encourage a student's science project without stepping over the line and being "too" involved. We've all seen examples of projects (in every academic area) where it is clear that a parent has been heavily involved. Don't be that parent. Know that by letting your student do the work, your student will learn more and will, hopefully, enjoy the process. Don't worry that your student's project, done by your student, might not look as accomplished as another project for which an adult has taken the lead. Science projects shouldn't turn into a competition between parents! Trust that your student's teacher can evaluate your student's project in terms of the assignment and grade-appropriate expectations. The results might not be as perfect as if you'd done the project yourself. That's to be expected. The display board might not look like a professional designer put it together. That's to be expected. The hypothesis might not have been proven true. That happens, and it's absolutely okay! And the project might not be worthy of Nobel attention. Most aren't.

Understand the End Goal

Keep in mind what the K-12 science project is all about. Often the end result of a science project is a small measurable result or confirmation of a single scientific principle. The size of the outcome isn't what's important. Instead, the value comes from seeing the science unfold, putting a question to the test, and examining and interpreting the results. The motor a student makes as a first electronics project may not power a household appliance, but it will teach her about fundamental electronics principles, ones she might use as a launching point for her next experiment or invention.

So, tear the tape if it's needed, help with the procurement of supplies, be available as a sounding board and to help with suggestions when troubleshooting might be required, realize that you may need to assist your student in learning how to pace the stages of the project between the assignment and due dates, and certainly be prepared to join in at any aha moments or when something particularly cool happens in the experiment. But don't take over. It's not your science project. It's your student's. And remember, throughout the process, you get to do something amazing: you get to watch and enjoy seeing your student engage in the scientific process with enthusiasm and confidence. It may be a sideline job, but it's an important one!

(Please see Courtney's full article at PBS Parents: "How to Help Children with Science Projects Without Doing It for Them.")

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