At the Gwinnett science and engineering fair, nervous energy, excitement fills the air

By: Keith Farner

Published: February 27, 2015

DULUTH — Buzzing with nervous energy Friday morning, elementary, middle school and high school students waited patiently to show and explain their science and engineering fair projects inside the Gwinnett Center.

For some, it was their first time making it to the 37th annual regional event. Others, like Simone Pete, a Twin Rivers Middle seventh grader, were in their third year.

“Coming here was the best experience of my life,” Pete said. “After I kept coming here, I became interested in more and more projects after being able to be exposed to so many wonderful projects. That helped me come up with more ideas.”

This is the third year Pete has worked on a project about how colors on houses determine how much electricity is used.

Pete joined more than 815 students from across Gwinnett who brought 628 projects that won first place in their local school competitions.

The high school and middle school students who earn first place at the district level competition will move to the next round — the Georgia Science and Engineering Fair — which will be held in Athens in late March. The top projects then qualify for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, May 10-15, in Pittsburgh.

A first-year tandem of eighth-graders from Pinckneyville Middle, Lydia Catterall and Elizabeth Rapkin, were excited and nervous to explain to judges their project about using household and other nearby items to develop clean water.

They were also a bit intimidated looking around at other “super, great projects.” Yet once they talked about their project, their nerves settled.

Their test kit revealed yellow or red water depending on the level of bacteria. Their idea was inspired by a social studies lesson where they learned about water distribution in the Middle East.

“I found it really interesting how some places could have access to all of this clean drinking water and other places had access to lots of water, but none of it was safe to use,” Rapkin said. “So we wanted to find a way to find very common, easy-to-access materials so that everyone could have clean drinking water.”

For judges like Georgia Gwinnett College biology professor Elizabeth Suddeth, the students were very creative and developed original ideas or designs not typically found on a web site. Suddeth also noted that while many of the projects followed the scientific method, many of the students explained their project well, which Suddeth said was an important part of science.

“A lot of them really care about what they did and how to do it, and that’s really fun for me,” she said.

Suddeth also received a preview of sorts of the type of students who may be in her classroom in four or five years.

“It’s nice to see where they are right now and hopefully they’ll keep maturing in their scientific thinking before I see them again,” she said.

One of those students may be Natalia Vega, who Suddeth judged about her project that examined levels of bacteria in the Chattahoochee River. The North Gwinnett Middle eighth-grader said she found low levels of metal in the river, and it was most likely to have E. coli and Bacillus, two forms of bacteria.

Like the Pinckneyville duo, she was also inspired by the cleanliness of water in other countries.

Vega said the science fair has helped her figure out what kind of career to pursue, which so far is “definitely something in the science field.”