When Mentors, Judges and Students Come Together in STEM

More than 500 students from around Minnesota arrived to downtown Minneapolis March 25-27, 2017, for the 80th annual North Central State Science & Engineering Fair (SSEF). 

John B. of Chanhassan was one of them, participating for the first time, thanks to the suggestion of an engineering teacher. He was inspired by the work in the 1960s of Philo Farnsworth and Robert Hirsch to create a fusion reactor, which “consists of a vacuum chamber and various feed-throughs for deuterium fuel, high voltage, and measurement-taking devices.” He wanted to build a cost-effective model that other amateur students could replicate for experiments.

He is a high school junior, with an interest in applied nuclear physics. His grandfather, who began creating racecars when he was John’s age, helped him with welding work. John created a Geiger counter in fifth grade, and “has a nice collection of radioactive stuff,” as well as radio and amplifier work done in middle school, and an aquarium system built from scratch. Before this project he considered himself interested in theory, but he enjoys the process of building so much, he’s now considering experimental physics.

A robust team from Cloquet included Frances S., in the Cellular and Molecular Biology category, who used mathematical modeling to detect the pigmentation patterns of zebrafish. In the previous year, she had taken 260 photos over 12 weeks of the transparent and multiple embryos of the fish to watch its development. This year she focused on a select number of photos to hand code the placement of patterning of striped and spotted varieties. A University of Minnesota—Duluth biologist helped her, as did an Americorps volunteer who helped her use Python computer coding. The computerized coding expanded her pool of data points from 4,000 to 10 million. Data analysis revealed that the patterning was not random, but equidistant from East to West, with a larger distance North to South. Frances hopes to develop further projects involving pigmentation, perhaps leading to a study of melanomas, and is now taking a Python coding class each week.

Peyton S. and MacKenzie B. studied ozone levels for an Environmental Science category. They used topographical mapping — with access to the ArcGIS program made available to their school through federal funding — to compare the impact of land use, topography, urbanization and tree cover on ozone levels. Using data collected from the 16 ozone detection sites around Minnesota, and mentoring from an ArcGIS specialist, they created a pie chart of variables for each site and laid them side by side to detect patterns.

St. Michael’s had a high ozone level, likely because of its urbanized location and abundance of fossil fuels as well as the VOCs emitted by its tree cover. Duluth also was high, but with minimal trees it was oddly due almost exclusively to high development as well as the entrapment of nitrogen oxide gasses in the bowl of the city, enhanced by a consistent high-pressure system coming off of Lake Superior. Non-urbanized Orr was unexpectedly high, with variables that included high VOCS from tree cover — but heightened, it seemed, from a large bog that also produced VOCs. Despite a paper mill and building materials factory, Cloquet was on the low end, they believed because of an overabundance of NoX decreasing its ozone level.

Griffin M. of New Prague (above) specialized in the mathematical category, with "Polynomials in Z[x] and Irrationality Measure." He plans to study number theory at the University of Minnesota after he graduates from high school this year.

Serena J. of St. Paul experimented with "inexpensive glucose monitoring device for diabetics using capillary action of crosslinked sensing fluid: Year 2."

Avni J. of Eden Prairie did a project titled "Solving the hip fracture crisis: utilizing silica nanoparticles to synthesize a flexible, affordable and bio-friendly Shear Thicking Fluid-based innovation."

Pujan P. of Rochester (right), a junior with an interest in chemical eningeering, was named one of Seagate's Rising Stars for creating a novel approach to prevent the spread of E. coli and other prominent bacteria in commonly touched surfaces.

Austin W. of Winona (left) worked on "folic acid-coated magnetic nanoparticles as a potential anticancer drug-delivery system for the targeted release of cisplatin."

Anna C. of Bemidji did a project "evaluating NHE1 as a potential therapeutic target in ovarian cancer."

Percy T., Vincent M. and Alex D. of Burnsville (below) worked on "the effect of anthracite combustion on cyanobacteria."


The Al-Amal school sent a large multi-generational team.

Jennifer Jo Hugstad-Vaa (right, pictured with MAS executive director Celia Waldock), retiring as a Burnsville coach after more than 30 years, was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award.