Students show off smarts, ingenuity at science fair

Scientists and engineers of tomorrow showcased their innovative talents Tuesday in Mitchell, as area students stacked their projects up against each other during the science fair.

Avon High School senior Evan Blaha talks among friends during the 27th annual South Central South Dakota Regional Science and Engineering Fair on Tuesday in the Christen Family Athletic Center on Dakota Wesleyan University's campus. Blaha's project of analyzing the effect of tomato variety and maturity date on fruit yield was one of the winning projects. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Scientists and engineers of tomorrow showcased their innovative talents Tuesday in Mitchell, as area students stacked their projects up against each other during the science fair.

In its 27th year, the South Central South Dakota Regional Science and Engineering Fair brought 168 middle school and high school students to Dakota Wesleyan University, vying for top honors and a chance to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair May 12-17 in Phoenix, Arizona.

As someone who’s been teaching physics and mathematics at the collegiate level for 40 years, DWU Mathematics Professor Michael Farney’s passion to contribute to the science and engineering community is shared with each student competing in the event.

“We think we do a very important service to the community, because the job of our students is to always bring something new and true into the world,” said Farney, who serves as the director of the competition. “That’s what the science fair is all about: to bring new and true things into our community and society, and to prove it works.”

The 101 projects on display at the regional event had already earned students top honors at their respective schools’ local science fairs, giving them the opportunity to compete at DWU’s Christen Athletic Center.


The competition includes students in grades sixth through 12, from 11 schools in 18 area counties. Roughly 73 judges select the grand awards winners, including three projects that will advance to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and one project to compete in Oswego, New York.

Peyton Brink, a freshman from Plankinton High School, spent hours developing her project called the Navigational Support Cane, which earned her top honors as the grand award winner.

In her third year competing in the science fair, Brink’s project is what she calls her most unique and meaningful yet, which is an innovative cane that aims to help people with visual impairments better navigate.

“Instead of people having to use the regular support cane or blind stick that people have to go around tapping surfaces with, why don’t we try to make stick that senses objects for them?” Brink said of her science project.

Brink used her engineering skills to create a motherboard on the cane that acts as a control system and senses nearby objects for an individual walking with a cane or blind stick. Brink designed and programmed the motherboard, installing a switch to alert a caregiver if the person using the cane is lost.

“The main reason I developed this is to help people with vision impairments that have to use canes or blind sticks,” Brink said. “There are only so many things available, so it’s always good to have something new that can help them out.”

With a background in coding, Brink used that knowledge to code the entire support cane technology in just two weeks. Since Brink’s great grandmother has been dealing with vision impairments, she had some extra motivation behind the making of her navigational support cane.

“I like to look for ways to help people with disabilities, and my great grandmother is completely blind in one eye, so this would be a great cane for her and others that have similar problems,” Brink said while standing next to her science project display.


On the environmental front, Jacob Maynard, a senior at Andes Central High School, spent the past few months developing his science fair project, which aims to help identify trees that can help produce more water for the environment.

“I found out that roughly 125 million hectares of land gets destroyed by deforestation, and shelterbelts are getting taken out and being replaced with more farmland each year,” Maynard said. “The trees that are still remaining in those shelterbelts aren’t the best water producers and don’t transpire as much water.”

In response to Maynard’s findings, his project was focused on seeking ways to bring back more water to be released back into the environment through trees.

Senior grand award winners of the competition will be awarded a $13,000 scholarship from DWU, along with plaques, trophies and recognition by a variety of military branches. The winning student must attend DWU to earn the scholarship.

In the senior level division, Brink, of Plankinton High School; Evan Blaha, of Avon High School; Lauren Sees and Callie Berndt, both of Avon High School, claimed the title as grand award winners. The top three winners will now get a chance at competing in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair May 12-17 in Phoenix, Arizona.

For the senior level student observers division, Shalayne Nagel, of Avon High School, and Kimberly Tolsma, of Avon High School, claimed the title.

In the junior level division, Caleb Wallinga, of Avon Middle School; Megan Gretchmann, of Avon Middle School, were crowned junior grand award winners. McKenna Kocmich and Grace Vanderlei, both of Avon Middle School, walked away as the grand award winners in the junior level group project division.


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