Finalists Compete in National Middle-School 'Young Scientist Challenge'
Finalists Compete in National Middle-School 'Young Scientist Challenge'

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Middle-school students from around the United States visited New York City recently for the final competition in the 11th annual Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.  The students, chosen from 50 state finalists, were vying for the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist” and $50,000 in U.S. savings bonds.

Children entered the competition by sending in their videotaped ideas, like one by 14-year-old Nico Seamons of New Mexico.  He showed how an ordinary garden hose, punctured with tiny holes and arrayed along the edge of a roof, could use the principle of evaporation to keep adobe houses cool.  Nico was one of 10 semifinalists ranging in age from eight to 14 flown to New York for the half-day final competition.

In the first event, the students presented their own inventions, made of ordinary household products. Nicholas LaJoie of Maine had created a “mosquito trapper.”

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“Heat rises, and the heat generated by this light bulb, rises inside the motel,” Nicholas explained, gesturing to a lamp with a sort of bonnet on top of it – the mosquito “motel.”

In the second round, finalists were asked to purify water, and to separate man-made diamonds from a solid mixture. Next, they were challenged to remove stains and graffiti from replicas of New York City buildings without harming the surfaces.

Nico Seamons, together with Nikita Gaurav, 14, and Marina Dimitrov, 13, were the three winners chosen to compete in the day’s fourth and final event. Each had 50 minutes to design and build a tall structure that could withstand earthquake-level tremors – while holding an egg intact. Adult scientists from the 3M Corporation acted as building assistants, but the students alone did the planning and design.

“So what I have here is a pyramid-shaped building, and it has a little pocket at the top, so I can place the egg in it,” Nikita said of her four-footed structure.

Marina also went with a pyramid because, as she explained, “Triangles are the strongest shape because unlike squares, rectangles, they don’t bend easily.” She enclosed her egg in a little sling just beneath the intersecting plastic pipes.

At the end of the 50 minutes, the three finalists’ structures were tested, one by one, on the earthquake simulator. None of the eggs survived, but each structure remained standing -- thanks in large part to duct tape, the young scientists agreed.

“Duct tape is really awesome, duct tape fixes everything,” Marina commented later.

The judges said their final decision, based on all four of the day’s events, was a close call.  Nico and Nikita tied for second place, while Marina Dimitrov won the top prize. She said she’ll save it for her college education, and hopes that other children will be inspired to study science, too.

“I just think it’s really important to get kids excited about science at an early age,” Marina said, “because they might be the next Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton, or America’s top young scientist. I want to show that ordinary kids can do extraordinary things.”

All together, 500 students entered this year’s competition. Officials said they were judged as much on their communications skills as for the scientific talent they showed.