Area high school students seek to improve the world
THE BIGGEST IMPACTS
1st place: Ariella Hoffman-Peterson of Niles North High School
2nd place: Ayana Jamal, a classmate at NNHS
3rd place: Michelle Kim of Niles West High School
Updated: May 20, 2012 8:07AM
Trying to build a better sunflower, and trying to keep the sun from causing havoc on Earth — these were the types of problems local high schoolers addressed last week at a science fair unlike any other.
Wheeling High School held its first “Midwest Research Competition” on Friday, inviting teens from around the suburbs to bring their brightest ideas together and, unlike most events on the science-fair circuit, meet each other to exchange their bright ideas. There were judges, three winners from Niles and prizes, but numerous participants said they most enjoyed the chance to learn about each other and their collected work.
“There are some really amazing projects from some brilliant minds that I can’t compete with,” Niles North senior James Gilbert said. “I’m happy that I was afforded the opportunity to come here.”
“It makes you think about possible career options that you would enjoy doing,” Deerfield High School freshman Naomi Benson said. “It’s a much more intimate setting.”
Accentuate the positive
The focus of the competition, subtitled “Positive Impact” by creators Barry Hanrahan and Ken Indeck, educators at WHS, was for students to find the means to improve the world.
“We got a lot of positive feedback,” Hanrahan said Monday, adding that he and Indeck would likely bring the competition back in 2013. “I thought it was a great opportunity for kids to share their successes.”
What Anvesh Jalasutram of Stevenson High School shared was his research regarding angle-adjustable solar panels. His intent was to show that if panels tilted the way sunflowers and other foliage do — following the sun’s arc across the sky — rays would hit the panels directly for longer, increasing efficiency.
“Sunflowers, obviously, don’t do that by default,” Jalasutram said, but building motors into solar panels creates a new cost that bothers potential owners.
“They think it’s not cost-effective, but it actually is,” he said, because of the increased output.
Michael Nissan of Niles West took on another problem with the potential to improve businesses’ bottom lines: finding the shortest route from numerous starting points to numerous ending points. To create a better method for warehouses to ship products, pharmacies to ship vaccines and grocers to ship food, Nissan developed a homemade algorithm (the “circle algorithm”) for multiple-point-to-multiple-point transactions.
“It’s a holy grail of math problems, because it’s unsolved,” Nissan said.
“I didn’t solve it.”
Gilbert used an algorithm on a subject of much larger proportions — the sun, hundreds of times larger than the Earth — and a threat that the Earth currently has no defense against. When the local star lashes out a solar flare of a large enough size, whatever piece of our planet it hits loses electricity.
Gilbert recalled the 2003 solar flare that punched out New York City’s power grid for 24 hours, costing the economy $6 billion. In response, he developed an algorithm he said could study the sun’s activity and predict when the next direct strike will happen.
“From this, we could prepare people on a massive scale,” he said.
Benson’s project was so down-to-Earth that it went under the surface, into the sand just off ocean shores. Her form of beach landscaping, if designed and executed properly, could create underwater obstacles that suck the energy out of incoming tsunami waves.
“This is extremely important,” she said. “There’s less destruction, and less people are dying.”
Benson said she and her three siblings are all regulars on the science-fair circuit; to study this subject, she borrowed a 150-centimeter-by-60-centimeter water tank her older brother built, set off her own mini-tidal-waves in it, then tried numerous designs of sand and rock to squash them. She noted that her designs struggle with a serious real-world problem: Tides would change her creations’ shapes, meaning whatever government paid for them would have to rebuild them regularly.
“There are more variables,” she said.
Students from about half a dozen high schools made their cases in front of the usual judging panel, but, after that, gathered in a single WHS conference room and showed off their work to each other. Many said they enjoyed the social impact of the “Positive Impact.”
“It’s a more personal experience,” Jalasutram said.
“It really facilitates communication between everyone,” Gilbert said. “I’ve seen a lot of conversations start up.”