Young scientists show work at U

The Twin Cities science fair, which relies on industry sponsors, may have to cut costs next year

A fair goer points out a trophy at the Twin Cities Regional Science Fair.

Marija Majerle

A fair goer points out a trophy at the Twin Cities Regional Science Fair.

Nearly 500 young scientists discussed their scientific inquiries with about 230 volunteer judges this weekend as part of the 71st Twin Cities Regional Science Fair , hosted by the University of Minnesota. Ninety students will take their projects on to the state competition and 10 were chosen to participate in the international competition in Reno, Nev . Fair expenses âÄî like the cost of sending winners to Reno âÄî are covered mainly by industry sponsors like Medtronic and 3M , who together donated $35,000 this year, fair director Penny Lohman said. The University provided in-kind donations, like a discount on field house rental. However, next year will likely pose financial challenges. The University has already said it is unsure itâÄôll be able give a field house discount, and fair organizers have yet to see how the financial crisis will affect industry funding, Lohman said. They will have to decide how to reduce costs, she said, whether by sending fewer students to the international competition or raising the participation fee, currently at $20. The fair has expanded since it began using the UniversityâÄôs field house about nine years ago, Lohman said. The large space allows them to let more students compete, and the University connection is helpful for finding judges and getting students into University labs for their projects. Lohman has directed the fair for 20 years and said during that time sheâÄôs seen an overall improvement in projects. Now thereâÄôs more science they can get involved in, she said, and the projects tend to be more focused than in the past. Whether they collaborated with a business, a research lab at the University or elsewhere, or made labs out of their own homes, many student projects addressed relevant issues, and the Daily chose a few such projects to highlight:

Energy vampires

Hitting the power button on electronics like televisions and video game consoles doesnâÄôt really cut off electricity flow, found eighth-grader Victoria Bart. Just by keeping them plugged in, her familyâÄôs TV, DVD player, stereo, laptop computer and Nintendo Wii were all wasting electricity âÄî and money. For example, she found the DVD player and TV, when turned off, still suck away about $15 worth of electricity over a year. Indeed, many products, sometimes called energy vampires, do draw âÄústandby power.âÄù According to the website of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a Department of Energy Lab operated by the University of California , products consumed electricity via current converters, LED displays and circuits that stay energized even when the device is off. American homes typically have about 40 such machines, which together amount to nearly 10 percent of residential energy use. One solution, Bart said, is to use timers set to cut off power to certain devices when theyâÄôre usually not used, like during the night. Her family plans to start using the timers, she said, and she wants to keep finding ways to save energy.

Can Monarch butterflies handle climate change?

High school senior Emily Nimmer worked in University fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology professor Karen OberhuaserâÄôs lab last summer, where she tested the effects of heat on Monarch butterfly larvae development. Her work, done in collaboration with graduate student Reba Batalden , was part of a big-picture project aimed at understanding what temperatures Monarchs can withstand, which would help predict what will happen to butterflies as the climate changes, Oberhauser said. Nimmer said she found that briefly exposing larvae to a hot environment was more harmful than exposing them for a longer period of time, suggesting they were able to adapt if given time.

Hydropower at home

With his homemade hydropower device âÄî a jug containing a mini-turbine that, when turned by running water, generated electricity âÄî high school sophomore Mike Pruszinske aimed to find a second use for the hundreds of gallons of water used daily by American families. His device could only produce about a tenth of a volt of power, but he hopes to improve it to make it a viable energy source. Already, some use nearby streams and rivers to power small-scale hydroelectric devices, and either channel electricity back into the grid or use it themselves. The United States does depend on energy from larger-scale hydropower devices. In 2007, nearly 6 percent of all energy produced in the country was from hydropower. Michael Bart , a civil engineer with the United States Army Corps of Engineers who was at the fair with his daughter, said the idea of wastewater hydropower is interesting, but he hasnâÄôt heard of it being done. One challenge is that household water use is intermittent, while hydropower devices work best with consistent energy sources, he said. Still, he added, in the search for better energy sources, âÄúweâÄôll be exploring things weâÄôve never thought of.âÄù

Staph savvy

A type of antibiotic resistant bacteria known as MRSA is major problem for healthcare facilities because it can spread rapidly and especially affects those with weakened immune systems. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2005 nearly 19,000 people died after contracting MRSA in a hospital . And universal surveillance âÄî testing all incoming patients for the infection âÄî is an expensive solution that most hospitals canâÄôt afford. High school senior Stephen TrusheimâÄôs software aims to find a âÄúmiddle groundâÄù of testing, which he calls predictive surveillance. Working with an Eden Prairie business, Access Genetics , he created software that predicts the likelihood a given incoming patient is infected, recommends who should be tested and what tests should be used, and estimates the cost of different surveillance methods. Applying his program to previous data, Trusheim found it could catch 70 percent of patients with the infection by testing only 10 percent of all incoming patients. He needs to validate the program with more data before hospitals could use it âÄî so far, heâÄôs only tested it with data from one Illinois hospital which he plans to do this summer at Access Genetics, where heâÄôs been hired to continue the research. Trusheim will compete in the international competition in Reno.