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Middle Schoolers Get Brain Workout at Young Scientist Challenge

Forty top middle school students came to Washington [10/21-24] to compete in the 9th Annual Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge. Selected from a pool of 75,000 students from across the country, the finalists (aged 11 to 15) had previously competed in statewide science fairs.

While the jam-packed week did showcase individual talent, the $100,000 in scholarships and prizes went to the young scientists who demonstrated the best overall teamwork and communication skills. VOA's Rosanne Skirble followed one team and prepared this report.

The backdrop was the University of Maryland campus, not far from Washington. That's where students were divided into teams to solve a series of environmental problems and to explore eco-friendly solutions such as green architecture and recycling.

Chief judge Steve Jacobs observed how students tackled each task. "We judge them on the science process skills that they bring to bear. Do they take careful measurements? Do they analyze? Do they predict? Do they observe? Do they think before they speak?"

"We throw them a pile of tools," Jacobs said as he wandered into the campus greenhouse, where "Team Goldfish" (named for the students' faded yellow T-shirts) had 90 minutes to demonstrate the so-called greenhouse effect (how a carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere contributes to global warming). "We don't want to guide them too much, just enough."

Students were given a 272-kilogram block of melting ice, clear wrap, plastic tubing, beakers, flasks, thermometers, lab scales, a tank of carbon dioxide, or CO2 gas and several heat lamps to simulate the sun. Holding a beaker, Joshua Hammer, 14, from Dade City, Florida, took up 14-year-old Bethany Johnson's idea. "What we can do is to place the tube in here, wrap it around with plastic and stuff." As the kids got started, he yelled back, "Remember guys you have to put the heat lamp on it too!"

Science teacher Donald Howk from San Antonio, Texas, moderated the session. He says most groups used the white plastic pipe to make cubes or rectangles and then wrap them with plastic sheets. "But this last group, they designed little beaker-sized greenhouses, and [they] were completely unique in their design."

Team Goldfish worked by trial and error. They asked critical questions and refined their data. "Hold on!" said Muhammad Abu-Rmaileh,13, from Little Rock Arkansas, "If it [CO2] is so heavy why does the carbon dioxide stay in the atmosphere?" Joshua Hammer had the answer: "Because it's dissolved in with everything else."

Under the controls of the experiment, Team Goldfish charted the melting ice with increasing levels of CO2. While they were not thrilled with the results and went through the experiment a second time, they got the idea, which Hammer summed up for the group: "CO2 makes the ice melt faster, which affects the air temperature."

Wishing they had more time, Team Goldfish rotated to the patio outside the greenhouse where another challenge awaited them: measuring the mass and density of a typical load of household trash before and after it has been compacted. Operating a shiny red hydraulic press, team members crushed as much trash as possible into a one-cubic-foot box.

David Clark, an eighth grade science teacher from Wichita, Kansas, supervised this challenge. He let the kids know that all this household trash (cans, bottles, paper and plastic) could have been recycled, a message he hopes the students take home. "Maybe they can get a recycling program started at their school. Maybe it can go from schools to churches, built it in their neighborhood and across their communities."

Exhausted after back-to-back trials, the members of "Team Goldfish" said the day, like the competition overall, had been a rigorous mental workout. But it was fun too, said Catherine Soto, 14, from Los Angeles. "I learned better communication skills, better working as a team."

Those skills vaulted old Erik Gustafson, 11,from Cortland, New York, into first place as "America's Top Young Scientist." He was also the recipient of a $20,000 scholarship.

At the awards ceremony at Discovery Channel's Silver Spring, Maryland, headquarters, Gustafson said that even though he is the youngest to ever win the honor, he has what it takes to lead the pack. "It took the steps of being able to communicate to another level, to be able to work with a team, think out loud and be a leader. It just took all of my science, everything that I have ever learned and took it to the next level."

Gustafson says he plans to stick with science and work on problems that may help save the planet for future generations