YSC Interviews with STEM Fair Winners

Recent winners share their experience with a national virtual fair.

In case you have missed it, Youth Science Canada Online STEM Fair recently announced its winners. Youth Science Canada, the nation-wide non-profit that fosters interest and application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) had to cancel all of its 103 regional fairs as well as its annual Canada-Wide Science Fair, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

However not all was lost, as a partnership with Make: Projects created an online space for students to demonstrate their research talents and ingenuity through an Online STEM Fair.

The fair was hosted on the online platform, Make: Projects, with thousands of submissions and spectators. This year is the first time the world is experiencing such large-scale virtual events globally. YSC and Make: Projects moved swiftly to deliver a platform that maintained the intrigue of a real fair. The online platform carried an easy user experience, presenting a ‘lobby’ to enter the fair, explore projects and connect with the STEM-student community.

Virtual ribbons were handed out to the most outstanding projects, judged by regional committees across Canada, sponsors and YSC itself. Here at Engineering.com, not only did we have the opportunity to judge the hard work of students in the “natural resources” challenge, we also we had the honorable opportunity to interview four ribbon winners in their respective categories giving us insight into the details of their projects as well as their experience at an online STEM fair.

The following are four questions that were asked to each student:

1. What research went into your project and why did you decide on creating it?

2. How was participating in a Science Fair helpful to you, did you connect to any resources?

3. How was your overall experience with Make: Projects and conducting you project virtually?

4. To you, what is the importance of youth science fairs?

Be sure to check out the videos created for each project!

Jenn Xu

Award Recipient in the Natural Resource category, grade 10.

Project Title:. BREAKING NEWS: Paper to Printing Polymers

“They broaden the possibilities of science and forces you to be innovative, creative, and above all else, curious.” —Jenn Xu

1. I conducted a lot of research by looking through research papers around the subject of cellulose, and what could be done with it. I ultimately decided on creating my project on the topic of using cellulosic materials in 3D printing because I thought that was a creative and environmentally friendly way to make 3D printing more sustainable. There was already some research done on the topic, so I started to think of a way to improve the idea even further. I went back to another approach that I usually take when creating science fair projects: reusing waste materials. I realized that if I could harness the cellulose from paper waste to turn it into 3D printing polymers, that would be even better for the environment.

2.  Participating in science fairs has really helped me dive into topics that actually interest me, particularly in chemistry and chemical engineering, that are outside of the school curriculum. Coming up with project ideas also led me to discover my passions in science, as well as discovering what exactly I wanted to do in the future.

3. Make: Projects was a great experience for me in terms of virtually presenting my project. I loved the simplicity and design of the website, and the options I had in regard to presenting (adding videos, editing photos, word formatting options, etc.) It felt very professional and clean!

4. Youth science fairs are extremely valuable experiences for both elementary and secondary students. They broaden the possibilities of science and forces you to be innovative, creative, and above all else, curious. Science fairs are all about thinking outside the box and learning something new; it’s what you metaphorically “take away” from the experience that matters most, not whether or not you won something. I started participating in my local science fair in grade 6, and I’ve participated every year since. I began exploring new areas of science I had not thought of, thanks to these fairs in the process of developing my own project. As well as, when I went around to check out other projects. Although I didn’t win medals every year, it still kept me curious throughout the years as I continued to expand my knowledge and get more and more innovative each passing year. Youth science fairs offer opportunities for young students to really develop a love for science, and I think that is incredibly important.

Rhea & Neil Bhalla

Award Recipients in the Natural Resource Challenge, grade 9.

Project Title: Genetically Engineering E. coli Bacteria to Produce Sustainable Textile Dyes.

“We ask questions, and search for answers in a quest that is truly exciting. Not only do we learn from our own projects, but we have the opportunity to learn from others.”— Rhea Bhalla. 

1. The motivation behind our project stems from a family trip to India, when we saw, firsthand, the incredibly devastating state of rivers in the country. The city Tiruppur is known as the “Knitwear Capital” of India, accounts for over 90% of the country’s textile exports. Water bodies like the once beautiful Noyyal River are now a toxic sewer, and are red or purple for much of the year due to synthetic dye effluents from nearby textile factories. Humanity lives in a time in history like no other. A world where financial success is the new survival, obesity is the new starvation, and overpopulation is the new extinction. It is a truly horrific sight to see rivers that run red—not with blood—but toxic waste from a million pairs of socks. Bacterial dyes are nontoxic and sustainable. They support countries where the textile dye industry is the backbone of the economy. Most importantly, they contribute to a healthy, and sustainable planet.

2. I think science fairs are an incredible opportunity to connect with like-minded peers, share ideas, and brainstorm new and innovative ways to build a sustainable future.

3. I really enjoyed the experience of holding a science fair online. Make: Projects allowed us to check out multitudes of projects from across the country. This offered many more opportunities to connect with students and receive and offer constructive criticism.

4. I think science fairs allow us to satisfy a deep curiosity that is shared among many Canadian youth. We ask questions, and search for answers in a quest that is truly exciting. Not only do we learn from our own projects, but we have the opportunity to learn from others. It is incredibly inspiring to know that despite being young, we can make important revelations through our research. After all, we are the future of science.

We can also build important skills and for habits that will serve us well for the rest of our lives. I know all of us who entered the STEM Fair took immense pride in our projects. We became more confident, more mature, and more skilled in the sciences.

Maya & Mitchell Clapperton

Award recipients in the Energy category, grade 11, grade 9 respectively.

Project Title: Reducing Barriers to Hydrokinetic Energy: An Autonomous Turbine Installation and Retrieval System

“It’s science that leads the way, particularly in the uncertain times we face today.”—Maya Clapperton. 

1. We are both concerned about climate change, and renewable energy will be a part of the solution. We knew we wanted to do an engineering-based project, and we looked at how we could help solve an issue relating to renewable energy: reducing a high potential source’s barriers to market. First, we looked at the obvious energy sources, like solar and wind, but their main challenges are inherent, as in they are intermittent sources and only work when it’s sunny and/or windy. Hydrokinetic energy doesn’t have a fundamental challenge stopping it from being widely implemented, it has technical challenges. Its main barrier to use is cost/difficulty of installing and maintaining the systems, so we decided to explore using process automation to significantly improve the source and make it a viable solution.

2. We are very motivated by deadlines and rules and so I think that science fairs provide a necessary structure and outlet for my interest in science and engineering. As well, science fairs allow us to present our projects to a community, while interacting with others our age who have the same academic interests.

3. We have both been to the YSC Canada-Wide Science Fair in person before, and there is undeniably something special about spending a week somewhere new with an amazing group of people. However, we think that YSC and Make: Projects did an excellent job of pulling a fair together. We know so many people completed projects this year, and it’s fantastic that everyone still got the opportunity to present them. We think Make: Projects was a great platform for this, as it had a consistent format with room for creativity, but it also still facilitated one of the main goals of a science fair: students talking about science.

4. YSC fairs are a really special experience. Our local fair, the Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair (BASEF) is run by an amazing group of volunteers who are huge advocates of youth science. Every year the awards ceremony talks about how we don’t celebrate science the way we should, like we do with sports for example. It’s science that leads the way, particularly in the uncertain times we face today. When thinking about extracurriculars, science is often neglected. Science fairs fill this gap, and create a community of like-minded students, who want to understand and make the world a better place through science.

Maya Achuthan

Award recipient in the Disease and Illness, grade 8.

Project Title: Dear, Pet Humans: Self-Domestication Reconstructing Mental Illness

“I loved this science fair and I love science fairs every year. I get to see research done by kids also amazed by science, and it’s really great if you want to learn something new that will completely blow your mind.”—Maya Achuthan.

1. I had to go through a ton of research (on animal domestication, mental illness stresses, the biology behind domestication, proof of humans domesticating themselves, and more), to validate on a theoretical level, that the research found to backup human-self domestication really did play a role in the creation of various mental illnesses. I never had genetic confirmation of that until I reached out to researcher at the University of Alberta—Rachel Wevrick—who gave me the tools to make that correlation. Specifically, I used the STRING software to investigate the uses of genes that contributed to domestication in anxiety, depression, and autism, and what I found was shocking – that genetic proof really did exist!

I had previously done projects on mental illness and it really interested me. But in any issue, the quickest way to solve a problem is to figure out its root cause in order to eradicate the issue ASAP—and that got me thinking. It took a bit of research but I found a topic that really intrigued me: Human Self-Domestication.

2. I loved this science fair and I love science fairs every year. I get to see research done by kids also amazed by science, and it’s really great if you want to learn something new that will completely blow your mind. I did connect with a few people this time around, some examples being the Canada Science Fair Journal, a couple of CWSF 2020 Ambassadors, and Mark Connolly from Edmonton AM, CBC Radio’s morning show. It was an awesome experience!

3. I think that Make: Projects was a really innovative idea and it shed a whole new light on what technology can do. I really got a chance to see the massive amount of research that went into each and every one of the projects here. Although I love presenting my project, this year gave me so much in the way of getting to see projects nation-wide. Overall, it was different, but I loved it.

4. Youth science fairs are a chance for kids to really show what they can do in terms of scientific discovery. These days, kids know so much and they do unbelievable research. It’s a great place to improve research and presentation skills while also learning something new. And guess what? Everyone else here loves science too! I’ve been doing this for the past three years and each year has been even more memorable than the last. People who haven’t tried going into youth science fairs definitely should, it gives you skills you might not get otherwise!

Sherry Shu

Award recipient in Environment and Climate change, grade 10.

Project Title: REPORT A Slippery Slope: Cleaning Up Oil Spills with Natural Methods

“Participating in the Science Fair inspired me to investigate the issues of oil spills on a much deeper level than I had prior, through a variety of different primary and secondary sources. This included talking to science teachers, watching videos, and reading academic journals.”—Sherry Shu.

1. I decided to create this project after hearing about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the severe damage it caused. Through news stories and videos, I found out that many of the methods we currently use in attempting to clean up oil spills are not effective and have additional adverse effects on aquatic ecosystems. Thus, I wanted to find a more natural material to clean up future oil spills that could be used at the industrial level. I did quite a bit of research on the damage that oil spills due to global economies, communities, and habitats. I also did research on the chemical and physical properties behind different types of sorbent materials, to understand why certain materials were more effective at adsorbing/absorbing oil than others. Finally, I looked through many academic journals and reports to understand which sorbents scientists had already experimented on at absorbing oil in selecting my final four sorbent samples.

2. Participating in the Science Fair inspired me to investigate the issues of oil spills on a much deeper level than I had prior, through a variety of different primary and secondary sources. This included talking to science teachers, watching videos, and reading academic journals. I was also able to challenge myself to design a well-thought out experiment that would give me the necessary data to make a cause-and-effect conclusion. Within my school’s preliminary science fair, I was able to see projects from so many other talented students and learn new things about the scientific world, as well as receive comments about my experimentation project and presentation skills.

3. Initially, it was quite difficult for me to use ProjectBoard. The large number of students on the site made it lag, and it was difficult for me to use the site, edit my text and visuals, or communicate on the chat. However, after the lag was fixed, the platform was overall easy and intuitive to use. I was able to easily include my text and upload visuals, as well as include all the aspects of my original science fair in the virtual version. I would have appreciated if the instructions for each of the sections could have been next to the sections, rather than in the text boxes – as I would have to delete the instructions in order to write my text!

4. Youth science fairs have always encouraged me to go out of my comfort zone with science. It’s been an opportunity for me to apply skills learned in the classroom (such as statistics, lab safety, and data analysis) in a real-world project. Every time I participate in a science fair, I find myself a little bit more in love with science. I discover so much more about how science can improve our world.

Engineering.com offers its congratulations to all ribbon winners and thank you to each student for your insight and experience on a successful virtual fair. The Online STEM fair had the largest number of participants seen by YSC. The online nature of the fair made this mission possible and accessible for every student. With the success of this event, it looks quite like there will be more to come!

Don’t forget to check out our overview and featured winners from our previous stories in this series!