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Students create mighty display of brainpower

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Some 60 teenagers boarded two school buses in Cloquet early last Saturday morning (Feb. 4, 2017) and headed to regionals. They sported the proper uniform — shirts and ties for most of the guys, dresses or dressier shirts and pants for the gals — for what was certain to be fierce competition at the 65th annual Northeastern Minnesota Regional Science Fair.

And many of them were literally brilliant, just ask the three college students from the University of Minnesota who came to help judge. They were enthralled with Cloquet High School freshman Abigail Smith's project, which measured the sound absorption, reflection coefficient and acoustic impedance of different materials in a high school auditorium, using a testing apparatus she designed and constructed.

"If you took college presentations and abstracts and put them side by side with these, I don't think you could tell a difference," said judge Haron Arama.

Anthony Canthorn was thrilled to see young people looking at science objectively, which contrasts with the current political climate, he noted, marveling over the resources the students had. Some were paired with university professors or other professionals as mentors, and several researched their projects at the University of Minnesota-Duluth zebrafish lab.

"These kids have futures," said judge Keiran Morris. "You could take that acoustic model to a company and get a job tomorrow."

Their words were music to the ears of Regional Fair Director Dr. Cynthia Welsh, a middle school life science teacher in Cloquet and the science fair mentor for many of the students here. Seeing the kids present to the judges — there were 160 judges Saturday for more than 150 students from the region — made all her extra hours worth it.

When asked how long it's been since she went home after finishing the school day, Welsh paused for a moment and then smiled.

"Sometime in November, I think," she said. "At least eight weeks. I haven't been on Facebook or watched TV or seen my grandbabies. But they all know I'm unavailable at this time."

Welsh had lots of help Saturday. Her husband, Scott, is part emcee, part master craftsman. Former students return each year to help run the fair and/or help mentor young science fair students. This year's alumni included Caleb Sharon, Cassandra Roy, Anna Pollak, Christine Neumann, Preston Jackson, Alec Lamirande, Courtney Jackson and Bill Bauer. They can all testify their own science fair experiences kept giving back when it came time to apply for college.

Projects ran the gamut, as usual. Eighth-grader Ahna Anderson looked at the effect personality grouping has on interactive technology learning success. Sixth-grader Bianca McGiffert experimented with saving furniture from cats by spraying different scents on furniture. Taylor Anderson considered the effect of acetaminophen-contaminated water on grass. Seniors Levi Peterson and Jacob Schmidt tested salt pellets made from a byproduct of fracking versus road salt. The list goes on and on, as did the awards at the end of the day.

Myriad special awards were given before students learned who would be going on to the state science fair competition in March. Then the two-hour award ceremony culminated with the international and national awards, including Genius Olympiad, I-SWEEEP (International Sustainable World Energy, Engineering and Environment Project Olympiad) in Houston, Texas, and ISEF (Intel International Science and Engineering Fair), held in Los Angeles. Most travel expenses will be paid for the national and international winners.

"There are 1,700 kids from 70-plus countries at ISEF, plus $5 or $6 million in prizes," Welsh said. "There are Nobel laureates there. The kids meet people from other countries, kids who like similar things. They take public transit. When you're from a small town, you don't always get those experiences.

"It's pretty amazing."

Or, as another doctor (Dr. Seuss) once wrote: "Oh the places you will go!"