Park City science fair confirms exciting hypothesis
STEM coordinator says participating teaches students valuable skills
Charlie Matthews looked around the gymnasium, where dozens of science fair projects were lined up in rows, and smiled.
Matthews is the Park City School District’s STEM coordinator, overseeing efforts to ensure students are well-versed in science, technology, engineering and math concepts and prepared for 21st century jobs once they graduate. For him, the district’s annual science fair is an opportunity to see firsthand the progress the district is making, and he said he was impressed with what students had come up with during this year’s event, held last Friday.
What was most encouraging was how much effort many students put into their projects, pouring weeks or months of hard work into the pursuit of solving a problem or answering a question that piqued their interest. Matthews said it’s critical that students be challenged more often to think for themselves and make their own discoveries about the world around them.
“It’s really neat to see them be scientists,” he said. “And that’s really what science fairs are all about, is getting kids to be scientists or engineers, where it’s a question they have that they’re trying to find an answer to, rather than what typically happens in the classroom of, ‘Here’s what somebody found historically, and we’re going to have you learn about it.’”
Luca Senn was one student who was excited to dig into a problem, centered on his passion for computers. His project examined whether he could improve wireless internet speeds by constructing a device called a parabolic reflector and use it to direct wireless signal straight to a computer.
The findings floored him. He said the most effective reflector he tested reduced the loading time of Google’s homepage from 0.314 seconds to less than one-tenth of a second.
“It was actually pretty amazing to see what happened,” said Senn, who attends Ecker Hill Middle School. “I was just staring at my computer in amazement when I saw it. I was very pleased with everything I saw.”
Senn was far from the only student, though, to achieve interesting results. Matthews said projects that caught his eye included one that involved putting crystals that generate small amounts of electricity when squeezed into shoes, with the idea being that someone could produce power just by walking or running.
Another project examined whether cell phone usage affects how a person’s stem cells transform into specialized cells.
“They have some pretty compelling data to support that it does encourage that it does stimulate that,” he said. “Obviously, that’s an example where there was a parent who was able to help the students get set up, but what was really neat was you could tell the kids were doing it. They were all over it.”
To Matthews, it was clear that many of the students had become hooked on science — and some may even go on to enter a STEM-related career. He often saw students inspired that way during the several years he spent teaching physics at Park City High School, but his current position allows him to help the district foster that kind of enthusiasm in much younger students, like the fifth-graders who submitted projects.
“Now, what’s fun about my job is I’m seeing younger kids that are just beginning down that road of finding what their passion in life is going to be,” he said. “Now, it’s more about how to work in the background to provide the support system to be able to encourage that.”
Even students who have no intention of forging careers in science earned a valuable experience, however. Matthews said students who can think critically, solve problems, and clearly articulate what they know will have a step up on their peers when they enter the work force.
“Particularly in this age of the internet, where you can Google an answer, but is that answer right?” he said. “Having critically trained thinkers that can take information and dissect it and have a logical problem-solving process to find the answer is important. Things like the science fair really lend themselves to those skill sets, regardless of where the kids end up in their careers.”
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