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Students win big at science fair

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With local students making their way through various levels of science fair competitions, one might be tempted to compare the Cloquet Science Fair program to a sports team.

Like the individual sports of cross-country, track, skiing and swimming, how well a person does depends largely on the work he or she puts into the project. At the same time, science fair students offer suggestions to one another, cheer and commiserate at competitions and generally spend a lot of time together, especially those who work in pairs on a particular project.

But science fair doesn't stop at state. As usual with its highly successful program, a number of Cloquet students advanced to three different international competitions, including the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in May and Genius Olympiad in June.

This year, they returned with lots of hardware.

"As a group they have more medals and higher level medals than ever before," science fair mentor Cynthia Welsh said, noting that she's had greater individual successes, but this year has been the best overall performance.

Cloquet sophomore Abby Smith took fourth-place Grand Award (top 20 percent of more than 1,600 top projects from around the world) at ISEF for her project, which looked at the very real problems with acoustics affecting the new middle school art room using two- and three-dimensional models.

She also made recommendations to the school, which they are going to implement, Welsh added.

At Genius, Cloquet students were awarded two bronze medals, two silver and a gold. The senior science fair team of Morgan Smith and Jordin Weisz won an all-expenses-paid trip to the MILSET Expo-Sciences Asia in South Korea in October.

Morgan Smith — Abby's older sister — and Weisz have been best friends since third grade and science fair partners for five years. This year's project was the culmination of six years worth of research on the effects of ibuprofen in Lake Superior worms and other critters that live in the water. This year they looked at a pharmaceutical filtration system to take the ibuprofen out of the water.

"We come up with new ideas and build on last year's project," explained Weisz. "If we look at how a species reacts to ibuprofen one year, we're like what would happen with multiple species or how can we remove the contamination.

"It was a really good ending point because we've been documenting the problem for so long and now we found a solution to it."

Her partner agreed, but pointed out that they definitely could have kept going on the project.

Except they graduated in May and both are headed to different colleges and different areas of study: Weisz to the University of Minnesota Duluth for speech pathology and Morgan Smith to St. Olaf Collage in Northfield, Minn., for environmental studies.

Whether they continue with their project or not, the two will certainly use many of the skills they gained through science fair in their academic career and in life.

They learned how to speak in public, how to follow the scientific process, how to question everything, how to write papers and even how to do an elevator speech.

They each have 1-, 3-, 5- and 7-minute "quick" presentations of their research ready to go.

"In seventh and eighth grade, I could not talk in front of people," Morgan Smith said. "I was terrified. I looked straight at the screen the whole time."

Fellow grad Katrina Ziells agreed.

"It teaches you how to have a conversation with people that are 'higher' than you, professionals in their field," said Ziells, who won the Donaldson Award in January from the Science Museum of Minnesota for her research on the correlation between video game and screen time usage and academic performance, visual-spatial skills and attention span.

Some, like Abby Smith, Ziells, Josh Sanders, Henry and Franny Slater, learned a whole new language, Python computer coding, as part of their project under the tutelage of former science fair student Bill Bauer, who is now working in the information technology department of the school district and was a huge asset this spring as Welsh had to take time off to battle breast cancer. However, because it was peak science fair season, Welsh stayed in touch with students through email and Facetime, even when she was in the midst of treatments.

They also get a taste of what life beyond high school can be.

Most of the science fair students who continue beyond seventh grade — when Cloquet middle school students do a mandatory science project — work with mentors who are professionals in their field. Morgan Smith and Weisz worked with someone from the Environmental Protection Agency, while Abby Smith found an acoustical consultant from the Twin Cities willing to help. Claire Taubman was advised a UMD professor; many Cloquet students work with professors from Duluth.

Even if they aren't planning to be scientists after school, being involved in the academic pursuit has changed their lives, and the lives of many Cloquet students who came before — some who went on to full-ride scholarships or prestigious universities because of what they did here. Some of those students return each year to mentor younger students, or help with the regional science fair.

Smith and Weisz said science fair is usually the first thing they talk about when people ask about their interests.

"You're so proud of it — it's you, you put so much work into it," said Weisz.

Senior-to-be Taubman agreed.

"It's given me so much confidence," said Taubman, who experimented with gut bacteria from waxworms and mealworms to try to degrade plastic this year. Her results were inconclusive, but unlike many sports, science fair is more about the scientific process than achieving a particular process.

All five students said it wouldn't happen without Welsh, who spends time working with students during and after school, and also makes trips to meet with them and their mentors. She estimated she spent at least 800 hours on science fair in 2017-18 outside of school. That doesn't count all the time her husband, Scott, volunteers to to help.

Welsh said she appreciates all the help she gets from longtime volunteers, and particularly Bill Bauer this year.

"We're kind of a family," Welsh said. "We just help each other."