Classroom of the Week | Through 'wit, hard work, passion and inspiration,' Berkshire middle school students find success at science fairs

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Editor's note: This article has  been amended from its original version to include the names of three St. Agnes students who also earned third-place honors at the Region 1 science fair.  Their names were erroneously omitted from the first edition. 

You can ask any local middle school science fair students about their projects. But please, don't ask them if they're building a volcano, or a rocket or a model airplane.

"We're all out here doing higher-level work. Nobody really does that anymore," says Joyce Makdisi, a sixth-grader at St. Agnes Academy in Dalton.

But, as St. Agnes seventh-grader Sydney Moriarty explained in an interview earlier this week, a lot of people still have those archaic, stereotypical images of simplistic baking soda-, vinegar- and food coloring-fueled volcanoes and model-building kits stuck in their heads when they think of students doing science fair projects.

"People are amazed at the projects they see now because they didn't have to do that [level of work] when they were a kid," said Moriarty.

Asked about her approach to developing a solid science fair project, she replied, "The more research you do the better the project because you can put more data into it."

These students were among the dozens across the county who were collectively able to advance through this year's series of middle school science fairs.

How it works

On the science and engineering fair circuit, the competition starts at school.

For example, at St. Agnes Academy and at Richmond Consolidated School, teachers Paul Lange and Heather Ostrander, respectively, have their middle school students select a science-related topic to study at the start of the school year.

"I encourage them to find a topic that's enjoyable to them. They're spending six months on these projects, so if it's not interesting then they're likely to become bored with it," Lange said.

Often the topics are derived from questions that students want to know the answer to, like "How does welding work to support the weight of a structure?" or "Do some fish swim faster than others because of the shape of their fins?" A subsequent investigation and experiments follow.

Students are then either selected by teachers to participate in the regional fair, or students earn their ticket to the regionals by earning high ratings from judges at their school's own science fair.

A total of 128 students — 97 of whom are young women — participated in the April 26 Region 1 Middle School Science and Engineering Fair held at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Of those, 60 students were from Berkshire County schools, which included Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School in Adams, Gabriel Abbott Memorial School in Florida, Greylock Elementary School in North Adams, Hoosac Valley Middle School in Cheshire, and Richmond Consolidated School. The other students came from the region's Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties.

According to Berkshire STEM Program Manager Shannon Zayac and Karin Lebeau, co-director of the Massachusetts Middle School Science and Engineering Fair, while judges use rubrics to help score students' work, it is a somewhat subjective process in determining who moves on to the next round, depending on which judge you talk to.

At the regional and state levels, students have to be able and ready to share an academic journal detailing their work on the project; present a display board showing their hypothesis, data, analysis and conclusion; and be prepared to talk about their work with judges and members of the community, and be able to answer their questions.

"The speech for the presentation is way more important than you think," said Richmond Consolidated School seventh-grader Madeleine Holmes.

She presented her project called "Mind Over Music," which explored the effects of how listening to different kinds of music affected a person's ability to study, learn and successfully take tests. Holmes' project initially earned an honorable mention at the April 26 Region 1 fair, held at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. But her score put her among the top 40 students in the region, and qualified her to participate in the state competition. That was held on May 11 at Worcester Technical High School, where Holmes became the only Berkshire student this year to earn a first-place rank at this level.

Asked why she thinks she did better at the state fair versus the regional one, Holmes attributed it to Ostrander's coaching.

"Mrs. O wrote down all the feedback [from the judges] for us. It helped me eliminate some of the variables in my project and make it better," Holmes said.

"There's often a lot of growth in between those levels," Ostrander said. "Throughout this process everyone's families have been incredibly supportive, which I think helps, too."

From the regional and the state competitions, said Lebeau, students earning scores in the top 10th percentile at each competition level are invited to advance. A total of eight local students, based on their scores at these two levels, received invitations to submit their projects to be juried through the national Broadcom Masters (Math, Applied Science, Technology, and Engineering for Rising Stars) program. June 12 is the deadline for these students to apply for consideration to compete for prizes and scholarship funds.

While Richmond's Holmes and classmate Ellie Caine said they do not plan to enter the national competition, they both say they've relished the opportunities given to them through the competitions.

"I went into it my way and it was a great experience," Caine said.

St. Agnes eighth-grader Julie Alsmaan completed a project, "Memories, Positive or Negative," to understand how past positive or negative experiences can affect a person's current frame of mind, which qualified her to enter the Broadcom Masters. She sums up the middle school science fair experience as an opportunity to build character for life.

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"It takes wit, hard work, passion and inspiration — that's how [students] are able to get to their goals," she said. "That's why the science fair is really important. It's an opportunity to figure out what you're interested in and how we can do more to figure out ourselves and the world."

Berkshire County middle school science fair honorees

BART

Evan Goodermote: "DIY Clean Dihydrogen Monoxide," second place at Region 1, qualified for states and Broadcom Masters

Ella Tawes: "Eye and Hand Dominance: Are They Related?," second at Region 1, qualified for states and Broadcom Masters

Meghan Schrade: "The Power of the Heart," third at Region 1

Haley Beliveau and Samantha Canales: "Sucrose & Glucose & Fructose: Uncovering Hidden Sugars in Your Food," honorable mention at Region 1

Richmond

Madeleine Holmes: "Mind Over Music," honorable mention at Region 1, first place at state fair, qualified for Broadcom Masters

Ellie Caine: "Photographic Feelings," second place at Region 1, qualified for Broadcom Masters

Tessa Hanson and Ellie Kanz: "Thermochromic Water Bottle," third place at Region 1

Mia Fowler: "Lemons vs. Oranges," third place at Region 1

Olivia May and Isabella Tinsley: "How average do you walk?", advanced from school to Region 1

Andrey Monteiro: "Hydrolic Powered Crane," advanced from school to Region 1

St. Agnes

Julie Alsmaan: "Memories, Positive or Negative," third place at Region 1, second place at state fair, qualified for Broadcom Masters

Catherine Moriarty: "Break it Down," second place at Region 1, third place at state fair, qualified for Broadcom Masters

Sydney Moriarty: "Neural Network vs. Dad," second place at Region 1, honorable mention at state fair, qualified for Broadcom Masters

Joyce Makdisi: "Left and Right Brain, Which One Are You?," second place at Region 1, qualified for Broadcom Masters

Mia Francesconi: "MIG or TIG, Which Weld is Stronger?," third place at Region 1, third place at state fair

Bel n Galvez: "Remember Me, Remember Me Not," honorable mention at Region 1, third place at state fair

Helen Makdisi: "Listen, Look, Learn!," third place at Region 1, third place at state fair 

Elizabeth Erwin: "What's Rising?," third place at Region 1 

Elizabeth Wheeler and Julia Wheeler: "What's in Our Water?," third place, Region 1


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