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Science fair superstars

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It had all the hallmarks of a major sporting event: competitors who train for a long time, lots of hardware, a big crowd and some serious cheerleaders in Cloquet Middle School students Joe Peterson and Mukwa Bellanger.

The seventh-graders parked themselves in the second row for the awards program, eagerly offering an outstretched hand for a congratulatory high five after classmates and peers garnered certificates, medals, trophies and even money at the Northeastern Minnesota Regional Science Fair on Saturday, Feb. 3.

Each student there had studied, investigated, examined and reported on various projects for months, then laid it all on the table for the judges to determine if their efforts were enough to get them to state science fair and even beyond that for a select few.

It's not easy.

Seventy students left Cloquet at 6:30 a.m. Saturday so they could get their display boards set up and their minds calmed before the first presentations started at 9 a.m.

During the two 90-minute presentation sessions, judges wander around the ballroom where the students are set up, dressed up and ready to explain what exactly they've been trying to figure out these past months.

In the case of Payten Schneberger and MacKenzie Brummer, make that years. The pair of Cloquet High School juniors have been studying ground-level ozone for science fair since eighth grade, when they learned about efforts by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to have the airshed over the reservation and nearby areas designated Class 1, the same level as most national parks.

The young researchers started by looking just in the Cloquet area, but have steadily expanded their field of study over the years as they've examined different variables in relation to ground ozone levels. This year the girls included all 16 ozone analyzers across the state, and looked at the different kinds of land cover (forest, open water, developed land) — more than 100,000 data points, they said — to try to determine how land cover influences the amount of ozone.

The two revealed that Cloquet, despite being a center of industry, has some of the cleanest air compared to other locations around the state with an ozone level of .02 versus the standard of 0.07.

Cloquet Middle School teacher Cynthia Welsh is the reason Cloquet has such a strong science fair program — they made up half the students at the regional fair, while the others come from as far south as Hinckley and as far north as Ely and Babbit — she is also the director of the regional fair with her husband, Scott. The pair put in many hours organizing the fair, on top of all the hours Welsh spends working with students from sixth through 12th grade.

Happily, she has an additional helper in Bill Bauer, a Cloquet graduate who made his way to ISEF when he was a student and sees it as a way to give back. He's been a huge "blessing" to Welsh this year in particular, she said, revealing that she was diagnosed with breast cancer in January and has had to take some time off to get ready for surgery and treatment starting this week. The prognosis is good for her health, she said. But having Bauer there to supervise students when she couldn't has also been a lifesaver.

"I felt like I had a partner, and that's been great," she said.

Bauer is also in high demand because of his expertise with computer programming and math. When he works with students applying those skills, they often take their projects to the next level, which can mean thousands of data points rather than a couple hundred. And the kids get to learn about computer science, something that's not offered at Cloquet High School.

For that reason and many more, Welsh said she loves what science fair teaches students beyond their individual projects.

"It gives them skills they need in the world," she said. "They have to write, create a presentation, present that, answer questions ... these are all really beneficial skills to have in the adult world."

More than one student has texted her from college to say how impressed their professor was by a presentation they'd given, and they credit science fair for their successes.

Cloquet senior Morgan Smith said science fair changed her life, noting that she wants to study environmental science in college and hopefully work for the Department of Natural Resources or the Environmental Protection Agency when she graduates. This from a student who spent years, with partner Jordin Weisz, looking at the effects of ibuprofen, which isn't always filtered out of wastewater, on a certain species of shallow water worm, along with ways to better filter out the drug.

"Science fair also about building their resume," Welsh continued. "Google any one of them (her longtime students) and boom, you'll see a whole list of accomplishments. That's what school is all about: preparing them to go into the world and showing them in their best light doing something they have a passion for."

Welsh said they had nearly as many judges there Saturday as students. Many are college professors or graduate students, others are special judges, there to award prizes for projects that study their particular field of interest such as fish or people who fit a certain category, like women in science.

In Cloquet, at least, finding females who want to pursue science is no longer an issue. Science rocks; it doesn't matter if you're a boy or a girl or what you study.


Just look at the following list for examples:

• Katrina Ziells examined the correlations between video games/screen time usage and academic performance as well as spatial skills.

• Josh Sanders won big awards for building his own bike camper, which he then tested to see how weather resistant it was using temperature gauges and more.

• Taylor Anderson looked at the effect sucking on a mint has on short- and long-term memory for students. (Note: They do better on tests an hour later.)

• Hannah Mitchell studied the correlation between sulfite concentration and the germination of wild rice, and found that current sulfate levels might be set too high, although she was forced to use lettuce seeds when the wild rice wouldn't germinate. Mitchell said she decided to do the experiment after following the debate over the proposed Polymet copper mine.

As Welsh noted, kids don't just learn about their particular experiment.

Brummer said science fair successes and failures have taught her patience and to persevere. She's considering studying medicine, in part because of what she's learned about ground level ozone and its negative effect on people.

Schneberger is also considering a career in science, technology or engineering.

"It's made me question everything, said Schneberger. "I'm super-investigative, always asking why and how."