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Kentucky Science and Engineering Fair participants adapt, overcome, give hope during 18th annual event

The 18th annual Kentucky Science and Engineering Fair was held March 28 in virtual form. Originally planned for Eastern Kentucky University’s Alumni Coliseum, the fair instead occurred simultaneously in 567 homes.

Overall, 346 students representing 305 projects participated virtually to compete for awards in 22 middle school and 22 high school categories ranging from animal sciences to robotics and intelligent machines. These students were joined by 221 volunteer judges from across Kentucky and the nation.

Students and judges were welcomed virtually by Gov. Andy Beshear and EKU interim president Dr. David McFaddin. Both credited fair participants for reflecting the determined spirit and rich tradition of Kentuckians who throughout history have come together to adapt and overcome.

Kentucky is one of a few states being able to hold a state fair with personalized student-judge interaction this year. The monumental chore of developing and managing the fair logistics was performed by 10 volunteers mostly from Louisville-based STEM Wizard and Eastern Kentucky University.

At one point during the fair, there were 42 simultaneous Zoom virtual sessions occurring for category judging. Students too, had to overcome a lot. Lacking school resources, many students converted their posters and display boards to digital slideshows in a matter of days. Dr. Jason Marion, Fair Director and associate professor of Environmental Health Science at EKU, gave his rationale for why the fair had to continue this year.

Carissa Stahl presents her research to category judges in Middle School Robotics & Intelligent Machines during the KY-SEF on March 28. (Photo by Anjali Chadha)

“My co-director, June Settle and I, received numerous requests from individual students strongly urging us to see that the fair continued,” Marion said. “Working with our fair logistics partner, STEM Wizard of Louisville, we realized we could pull it off. Upon our announcement of going forward with a virtual fair, we were met with a flood of messages conveying joy from kids, parents, teachers, judges, and so many.

“The encouragement is what kept us going, knowing we were doing what was right to bring Kentucky together and to show off what makes our participants and their work truly awesome.”

In moving forward, Marion expressed what the students had to do to make this possible.

“These students had a busy two weeks leading up to the fair and despite potential distractions, they persisted and demonstrated to our judges and many more new, out-of-state judges, why Team Kentucky and the Kentucky Science & Engineering Fair is among the nation’s finest,” he said.

“Our fair alumni are truly rock stars, just Google search Anjali Chadha or Rachel Seevers. We were not going to let COVID-19 detract us from our mission for our young people. They were willing to do the work, so we had to deliver too, and ensure this showcase and competition continued.”

There were projects boasting an array of cutting-edge topics with category and special award winners coming from all across Kentucky, from Bowling Green to Belfrey. Some unique projects included Solar Soldier from Floyd County’s Todd Prater who won the U.S. Navy/U.S. Marine Corps Excellence in Research Award for his solar panel covered combat helmet.

Another notable project involved the team project from Pike County’s Jaley Adkins and Madison Slone which recognized their work on gold and silver nanoparticles from Kudzu vine plant extracts for assisting in cancer diagnosis.

Overall, the top three high school winners in the life sciences were Robi Bolli of Louisville (1st place), Saisha Dhar of Lexington (2nd), and Sonia Nagpal of Louisville (3rd). Bolli’s project demonstrated the promise of cultured cardiac mesenchymal cells for repairing heart damage in mice that had heart attacks.

Dhar’s research showed the promise of targeting an enzyme (ASK1) associated with lung cell self-destruction, as an alternative or therapeutic aid to mechanical ventilation in patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Nagpal examined how optical illusions influence acute visual working memory. Nagpal’s preliminary research findings on 100 participants showed that there was a slight improvement in working memory scores in groups seeing the optical illusion before taking the MemTrax visual memory test.

In the high school division for physical sciences, the top three winners were David Vulakh of Lexington (1st), Elizabeth Gallagher of Louisville (2nd), and Lauren Sotingeanu of Richmond (3rd). Vulakh presented his systems software whereby he applied an optimized ant colony algorithm for reducing the computational time for solving combinatory constraint-satisfaction problems, like Soduku puzzles, scheduling, or optimizing resource distribution. Gallagher’s project examined how air plasma could convert common plastic materials, PVC and PET, to porous carbon.

Through the use of scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy, she demonstrated PVC and PET could be converted, which has application to recycling those plastics in an environmentally-friendly way. Sotingeanu created and tested the strength of a banana peel-based bioplastic. She made the bioplastic using a combination of salts, acids, and glycerol, and then optimized her process for improving the strength of the bioplastic to resist tearing.

The awards ceremony occurred via YouTube and Facebook Live, and the fair’s director commended the students and the judges for adapting so quickly and for giving hope to all of Kentucky for persisting in their academic and scientific pursuits.

The fair director also thanked sponsors, like Battelle, who is working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and commended the 221 judges from most of Kentucky’s public and private universities and colleges, as well as judges from MIT, Harvard, University of Southern California, University of North Carolina, University of Illinois, University of California-Santa Barbara, University of Toledo, IBM, Battelle, Bechtel-Parsons, GE, Humana, the Department of Defense, Lexmark, and many more.

EKU, the host site of the fair, contributed the most judges, 33 in total, followed by the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky with nearly 30 each.

To see a full list of category and special awards winners, visit kysef.stemwizard.com or contact Dr. Jason Marion, Fair Director at jason.marion@eku.edu or June Settle, Executive Director at june.settle@eku.edu.

From Eastern Kentucky University

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