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Quality surpasses quantity at science fair

Mitchell students showed their science smarts Tuesday, as they swept the top awards at the South Central South Dakota Science and Engineering Fair in Mitchell.

Thea Patrick, a sophomore at Mitchell High School, discusses her research on Parkinson's Disease, which won first place Tuesday at the South Central South Dakota Science and Engineering Fair at Dakota Wesleyan University. (Jake Shama/Republic)
Thea Patrick, a sophomore at Mitchell High School, discusses her research on Parkinson's Disease, which won first place Tuesday at the South Central South Dakota Science and Engineering Fair at Dakota Wesleyan University. (Jake Shama/Republic)

Mitchell students showed their science smarts Tuesday, as they swept the top awards at the South Central South Dakota Science and Engineering Fair in Mitchell.

"We have graph after graph and finding after finding that tells what the students have learned about the natural world by looking at the natural world. We don't mind textbooks, but we think the best teacher is nature itself," said Dakota Wesleyan University Professor Michael Farney, who has helped organize the regional fair since its inception in 1993.

DWU played host to 195 students displaying 126 science projects, all competing for scholarship awards and a trip to the International Science and Engineering Fair in May in Phoenix, Arizona.

While Mitchell students dominated individual prizes, a $6,000 state award, provided by the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, will be provided to the Wessington Springs school district.

Sophomore Thea Patrick, from Mitchell High School, earned first place, a $10,000 DWU scholarship and an all-expenses-paid trip to ISEF in May for her project, which found a connection between blue-green algae and Parkinson's disease.

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Patrick added algae to samples of spring water and gave the solution to blackworms. After time, the worms began to display twitches or a lack of movement, similar to the effects of Parkinson's.

Patrick said the project could have local impact, as Lake Mitchell has an algae problem.

"If you look at Lake Mitchell, we actually have a lot of blue-green algae growing there," Patrick said. "We actually had our beaches closed recently due to algae."

The project also sought to find a connection between algae intake and Alzheimer's disease, but this connection proved more difficult since Patrick had no way of testing the blackworms' memory, she said. However, she conducted more research and found an external study that linked algae eaten from clams to Alzheimer's development in humans.

This year's fair was Patrick's fifth competition. She won the junior division of the science fair - open to sixth- through eighth-graders - when she was in seventh grade. But, this will be her first trip to ISEF, which is only open to students who place first, second or third in the senior division - open to high schoolers.

Sisters Madison Hetland, a sophomore at MHS, and Hannah Hetland, an eighth-grader enrolled in freshman-level classes in Mitchell, won second place for their project, which found a connection between people's dust intake and fat development.

"It was kind of interesting to see, can dust really do that, you know?" Madison Hetland said.

The Hetlands used groups of larvae for their experiment and fed them varying levels of dust mixed into a diet of rice cereal. A group with 5 percent dust intake showed a statistically significant increase in mass, Madison Hetland said, which is believed to be linked to a protein that affects body fat.

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"We wanted to do something that had a worldwide impact and something that people could understand on a personal level," Madison said.

Madison will return to ISEF for the second consecutive year, while Hannah will attend the competition for the first time.

Rounding out the top three were Alexander Rodriguez and Haley Rust, juniors at MHS, who suggested mealworms have the potential to digest styrofoam waste.

"There's millions of tons of styrofoam waste that are sitting in landfills that will take over 500,000 years to decompose. We wanted to find a solution that's now and is actually kind of feasible," Rodriguez said.

The pair discovered that mealworms can digest five common types of polystyrene, are not toxic to predators, produce little carbon dioxide and choose to eat styrofoam over their typical diet of dried rice 80 percent of the time.

Three student observers will travel at their own expense with the group to ISEF: Andrew Weller, from MHS; and Max Mach and Evan Blaha, both from Avon High School.

Farney said judges look for projects that are well-explained, have an impact on the world and provide the maximum amount of new knowledge.

Students from 12 school districts traveled to Mitchell for the regional science fair, but Farney said attendance at the event has been dropping.

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As schools consolidate, like Corsica-Stickney and Sanborn Central, some teacher positions are cut. Plus, Farney said experienced science teachers are either retiring or leaving the schools on their own.

However, Farney praised the Legislature's decision to raise teacher pay and said the quality of the science fair projects is on the rise.

"Quantity may be a little down, but quality is up, so we are still a very healthy science fair," Farney said.

Farney also praised DWU, which has hosted the event since its inception in 1993 and serves as its largest sponsor.

Farney expects the local competitors to compete well at ISEF, and he plans to bring students from more schools into the science fair fold next year.

Complete results from the science fair were not available by Tuesday evening, but will be published in a future edition of The Daily Republic.

Related Topics: SCIENCE
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