Lehigh hosts Science and Engineering Fair
Francis Waller, a former faculty member with Lehigh’s department of chemistry, engages a young scientist in conversation at the Lehigh Valley Science Fair.
Looking for a way to cure cancer, Aditi Pallod has run laboratory experiments on how to disrupt the function of cancer cells without harming other cells in the body. Not bad for someone who just started high school last fall.
For Pallod, a freshman at Parkland High School who wants to be a biochemist, the fight is personal.
“My grandfather passed away from prostate cancer last year so I really want to do cancer research,” she said.
Pallod worked on her experiments in a Lehigh biochemistry laboratory under the mentoring of Damien Thévenin, assistant professor of chemistry.
Her science project was one of about 300 at the Lehigh Valley Science and Engineering Research Fair Saturday at the Rauch Field House on the Goodman Campus. The participating middle and high school students came from 19 schools in the region to show their projects in areas such as chemistry, biology, engineering and physics and have them evaluated by judges in those fields.
Bob Haines ’79, an engineer who is the fair’s head judge, said he sees great value in highlighting the accomplishments of teens who are adept in the scientific arena when so much public attention is focused on those who excel in athletics or other areas.
“This is our next generation of people who are going to invent new things and do new things and move our technology forward,” Haines said. “So it’s important to invest in that.”
The first-, second- and third-place winners in high school go on to the regional science fair, the Delaware Valley Science Fairs, Inc., as do the first-place winners in seventh and eighth grades. The top winners at Delaware Valley can go on to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, billed as the world’s largest pre-college science competition, which awards about $4 million in prizes.
Some 26 years ago, Haines worked with Henry Odi ’98G, now Lehigh’s vice provost for academic diversity, to organize the first Lehigh Valley Science and Engineering Research Fair at Lehigh. The fair is sponsored by the university and Haines' company, Insaco Inc. in Quakertown.
“This is hands-on independent scientific research,” Haines said. “A lot of kids—and I was one of them—learn better this way.”
The science fair judges include Lehigh professors (current and retired), graduate students, professors from Lehigh Carbon Community College, and science and engineering professionals from companies such as Air Products, Merck, PPL and Lehigh Valley Health Network.
Students explained their projects to judges and were quizzed in turn about the steps they took and the results of their experiments.
“Just the interview skills they acquire here will serve them whether they go into science or not,” Haines said.
One exhibitor, Sriyaa Suresh, was one of 30 finalists last year in the Broadcom Masters, a national competition in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) for middle school students. She was the only Broadcom finalist from Pennsylvania to make it to the final in California’s Silicon Valley.
Now a freshman at Parkland High School, Suresh’s research this year was on how different types of calcium can help people with osteoporosis.
Two judges, Mike Kerner, a Lehigh graduate student in chemistry, and Daniel Zeroka, a Lehigh chemistry professor emeritus, questioned Suresh about her experiments. She handled the technical questions with the aplomb of a seasoned competitor.
Suresh thinks she wants to be a pediatrician or surgeon but also revels in research.
“I love just experimenting and finding out something new,” she said.
Matt Schaeffer, a freshman at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, had another pretty good reason for taking part in the science fair: You get to make stuff explode.
Schaeffer’s entry was “The Coke & Crushed Mentos Experiment” in which he put whole Mentos candies into a bottle of Coke and then he put crushed Mentos in Coke to see which resulting fizz would produce the highest geyser of soda. His conclusion: The whole Mentos caused the soda to shoot the highest.
Schaeffer explained the chemical reaction that caused the whole Mentos to create a higher gush of Coke.
“That’s the best part about science—explosions and chemical reactions,” he said with gusto. He hopes to someday get into engineering, electronics and computers.
Yasmin Johnson, an Easton High School freshman, presented a project entitled "How Does Heat Affect Yeast" in which she looked at the optimal heat for yeast to grow. Johnson is interested in biochemistry and engineering.
Angela Nicole Scott, director of Academic Diversity and Outreach at Lehigh who worked with Haines to organize the fair, said it’s heartening that alumni such as Haines step up to sponsor and volunteer. Students from across the Valley benefit.
“I am amazed by the knowledge base, the creativity, the passion and the enthusiasm of the middle and high school students who participate in this fair,” she said.
One of the longtime judges, Beall Fowler ’59, a retired Lehigh physics professor, said it’s a good opportunity for students to interact with professionals in the field. Seeing all the talented teens makes him hopeful about the next generation of scientists.
“You see bright people, energetic people. It’s great,” he said.
Story by Margie Peterson
Photos by Rob Nichols