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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel


    Nashua High School student alauren Kirby explains at the science and techology fair the experiments on fish behavior she conducted.
Friday, March 16, 2012

Nashua students swarm state science expo

CONCORD – School is supposed to teach lessons useful in life, so it’s a good thing that Richard Ruggiero’s entry in the New Hampshire Science and Engineering Exposition taught him to be more cautious about eating food that falls on the floor.

“Yes, I have followed the five-second rule,” admitted Ruggiero, a senior at Nashua High School South, referring to the folk wisdom that fallen food doesn’t really get contaminated if you snatch it up within five seconds, wisdom that his research rejected. “But I’m not going to follow it any more.”

“Well,” he added, “maybe I will in my own house.”

Ruggiero was one of 15 students from the two public Nashua high schools who participated in the ninth-annual NHSEE at New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord on Thursday, giving the city the largest contingent at the event.

Ten schools from the Seacoast and throughout the Merrimack Valley participated.

Full of research projects on topics like the effect of road salt on plant growth, and seeing whether mouthguards really help you get stronger (answer: no), NHSEE is the closest thing New Hampshire has to a statewide science fair.

But it still a ways to go before it can adopt that title, admit the volunteer organizers.

“Our aim is to be recognized so that winners can go on to the international events,” said Richard Feren, a retired physics and math teacher from Milford and one of the directors of the event. “We’re growing, but we have a ways to go.”

NHSEE would like to be recognized by the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, so winners could get more prizes and recognition at follow-up competitions. To do that, however, they need more volunteers to help judge and organize, so it can meet various Intel standards, including having more categories.

Currently topics cover only biotech and life sciences, with a few engineering subjects covered in special challenges.

A model is FIRST Robotics, which has grown from a local to regional to international competition, but since the entire exposition was put together with a budget of about $3,000, less than a single school FIRST team spends each year, it has its work cut out.

That’s no drawback for Mary Stewart, biotech instructor at Nashua High School North. She brought most of her second-year biotechnology students, who come from both Nashua schools and Hollis Brookline High School. This is her second year at the event.

“This is a good event because no idea is too small – you don’t have to cure cancer. The important thing is how you approach it; learning how to ask questions, find ways to answer them, understand what the results mean,” she said.

The event’s emphasis on communicating results is also important, Stewart said, since real scientists spend plenty of time creating “poster sessions” about their research to inform peers at conferences. Even the most Ph.D.-laden poster session looks a lot like a science fair.

“The kids are nervous, but when it’s over they realize it’s not that bad,” Stewart said.

Among Nashua students presenting Thursday was Ariel Brest, a North senior, who developed an extremely low-tech cooling unit.

It consists of a five-gallon plastic bucket with holes in the side, filled with a sand/soil mix around a central cavity for food, medicine or other objects to be preserved. Pouring water into the mix and allowing it to evaporate lowered the temperature inside the cavity from 78 degrees to 54 degrees, where it stayed for an impressive four days while in a warm room.

“That’s not a refrigerator, but it’s enough to extend the shelf life of milk or other products,” Brest said. She is proud of the fact that her unit is so cheap and easy to make in even the poorest of locales: “These are all materials that people anywhere can find.”

Nearby, classmate Lauren Kirby, a North student, is studying whether stress can make it harder for her goldfish, named Einstein, to swim through a maze of her devising. Stressing a goldfish, it turns out, involves swirling its water and tapping on the bowl, plus other techniques not standard in labs that send rats through mazes.

North senior Casey Apfelberg analyzed different cleaning solutions to see if “organic” ones did as well as chemical-based cleaners. Her first two experiments found that nothing worked very well, which made her doubt her protocols, so she took swabs from bathroom doors in school, figuring they would be a good source of bacteria.

“I got a lot of weird looks in the bathroom, scrubbing the door handles,” she admitted.

That final sample led to the conclusion that Mr. Clean from the chemical-cleaner category and Simple Green from the organic shelf did the best, but Apfelberg admitted that she’s still unconvinced.

“I need to do more testing,” she said, sounding exactly like a professional research scientist.

As for Ruggiero, he tested the “five-second rule” by taking swabs from various foods (some hard like cookies, some mushier like turkey) that had laid on the ground for various amounts of time and tried to grow bacteria from them.

He found one surprising fact – food dropped outdoors seemed to pick up less bacteria than food dropped indoors, perhaps because fewer bacteria can live outside in winter – but overall discovered no significant difference in the amount of bacteria grown from items picked up quickly compared to those allowed to linger.

It seems that if your dropped cookie is going to pick up a nasty microbe from the ground, it will do it on contact. The only difference, Ruggiero said, is due the cleanliness of the surface they land on. Hence his extra confidence in his own home.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.