Article: Mercury News

Posted on Thu, Mar. 18, 2004
Students show valley savvy in annual science competitionBy April Lynch, Mercury News

Shove over those baking soda volcanoes and lowly ant farms to make room for dissolved oxygen, non-linear oscillations and oncogenes.

About 850 sixth- through 12th-graders with a serious bent for science laid out elaborate experiment summaries and study results Wednesday for the judging of the annual Synopsys Silicon Valley Science and Technology Championship. In other places, such young contestants might be endearingly called “the scientists of tomorrow.”

But with projects that incorporated everything from wireless communications to molecular imaging, the students who showed off their lab work looked a lot more like the scientists of right here, right now.

“I tested for coliform bacteria, nitrate levels and dissolved oxygen, among other things,” said Shaheen Jeeawoody, an 11-year-old sixth-grader from Challenger School in Sunnyvale, standing next to a display on her environmental-science project on pollutants in Saratoga Creek. “The creek really picks up these substances as it moves through urban areas.”

The competition, in its 44th year, lets Santa Clara County students in grades 6-12 show off their scientific stuff. At first glance, Wednesday’s judging session seemed to have all the elements of a regular large science fair. Judges — about 450 of them — walked the floor with clipboards. Students had displayed their work on three-sided pieces of cardboard, and were sitting nearby to await judges’ queries.

A closer look at the projects, though, made it clear that this competition was in Silicon Valley.

A discussion of Thales’ Theorem, a principle of geometry, vied with works on high-tech materials science and melanoma. Some students had spent months perfecting their projects at home. Others had performed complex experiments in fully equipped research labs.

Saratoga High School senior Michael Lin barely had a free moment to grab a drink of water. His project on a particular oncogene — a type of genetic material that can trigger cancer if it changes — drew a steady stream of judges. They scrutinized the results from a sophisticated experiment he began while interning in a lab at Stanford University last summer, grilling the 18-year-old with questions on cutting-edge forms of gene research.

“My friends do call me a nerd, but they know I’m really into science,” said Lin, a winner in last year’s competition who is likely to study biology at Stanford in the fall.

Other students were just learning how to explain their projects to a bunch of note-taking adults. Emmanuel Vo, 12, played with his fingers nervously while he awaited the judges. Behind him hung carefully typed notes and hand-drawn charts explaining his study on the best way to clean up oil spills.

“This is my first time being here,” said the sixth-grader from Joseph George Middle School in San Jose. “I’m just waiting for the questions.”

The judges had to work quickly. The exhibits were shown only Wednesday afternoon, with winners to be notified March 25. To find out exactly what they have won, though, the students need to attend a ceremony April 4. There will be winners in both the middle and high school divisions, as well as numerous special awards from 66 outside organizations. Top competitors go on to state or international science fairs.

“There is so much great work here,” said Richard Padilla, a Gilroy biologist serving as a judge for a special life-sciences award. “I’ve seen some amazing things, and the students all have so much knowledge and enthusiasm.”

A few aisles away, Krisha de la Fuente and Cathleen Pham were channeling their share of that energy into a discussion of futuristic urban planning. To increase safety, the metropolis they visualize should be built in the shape of a giant pyramid, said the two seniors at San Jose’s Presentation High School. They had conducted some load-bearing materials studies to demonstrate why.

“It would be a lot more secure,” said de la Fuente, stacking a weight on a balsa-wood pyramid. “We wanted to be thinking ahead.”