Super Bowl of science fairs coming to Reno

Top students to compete in Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

2/19/2009 | By: Jane Tors  |

In a University of Nevada, Reno physics lab, Taylor Wilson is building a Farnsworth Fusor: a machine to generate neutrons and demonstrate nuclear fusion reactions at a very low level. If successful, according to his own research he would be one of only 30 people in the world to have built one and generated neutrons.

It is work comparable to that of a university science researcher, but Wilson, 14, is a high-school student exploring the realm of science and preparing for science fairs and competitions.

“It’s best to have this project in a lab, not in a garage,” said Ron Phaneuf, professor of physics and part of a small team of University faculty and staff mentoring Wilson.

This spring, Phaneuf and others who have quietly supported local science fair competitors over the years will have the opportunity to see and support the culmination of the science fair journey. Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the world’s largest pre-college science competition, is coming to the Reno-Sparks Convention Center May 10-16.

The event will feature more than 1,600 finalists, winners of affiliated science fairs from more than 50 countries who will compete for nearly $4 million in prizes. Finalists will include the winners of Nevada’s affiliated science fairs in March: the Western Regional Science and Engineering Fair held at the University’s Lawlor Events Center, the 2009 Beal Bank Nevada Southern Nevada Regional Science and Engineering Fair and the Elko County Science Fair.

For Intel ISEF to be a success, event officials will rely on an estimated 500 volunteers and 150 language interpreters . About 1,000 volunteer experts from all fields of science and engineering are needed to judge the exhibits and interact with students May 12 and 13. Judges for the event must have a doctorate degree or six years of experience in a field equivalent to one of the 17 judging categories.

“The first time I judged (at the international level), I was truly awed,” said Dick Simmonds, an emeritus University professor in physiology and co-chair of the ISEF Judging Committee. “With the quality of these young men and women, it was intellectually stimulating and professionally very exciting. It is a great opportunity for networking, not only with our peers, but with these bright young people who will be our peers in the not-too-distant future.”

For the international fair finalists, the science fair journey was likely made possible by the guidance and encouragement of mentors: parents, high school science teachers or – as is the case of Wilson – scientists and researchers.

“Taylor is phenomenal; he knows so much,” Phaneuf said. “And he knows all this because he is interested. The satisfaction of being a teacher is to see students get excited. It is always inspiring to see young people who get so enthused.”

Joining Wilson in the physics lab is Tristan Rasmussen, 16, who is exploring ways to electromagnetically launch projectiles. Wilson and Rasmussen are students at the Davidson Academy, the first college-based, public school for profoundly gifted students, located at the University’s campus in Reno. But the world of science competitions is by no means limited to gifted students, and the faculty and staff of the physics lab have helped many students from several area schools over the years.

For William Brinsmead, a University principal research and design tech, assisting such students is an investment of time, energy and expertise, although not budget. Along with machinists Dennis Meredith and Wade Cline, Brinsmead helps the young scientists build equipment. He also helps them acquire donated or surplus parts and equipment, just as he does for University researchers.

“This is way out of the reach of a hobbyist,” said Brinsmead of Wilson’s project. “This is not like a soap box derby. This is more along the lines of what a university research scientist would do. (Taylor) needs mechanical hardware and stainless steel fittings.”

Even the Lawrence Livermore and Berkeley National Laboratories in northern California have donated parts and equipment to Wilson.

“He’s learned to scrounge,” said Brinsmead, with pride in his voice.

Phaneuf notes the students’ work is closely monitored and appropriate steps are taken to ensure laboratory safety and compliance. As an example, Wilson completed the University’s laboratory safety training.

“I was in the science-kid category growing up and the system didn’t always know how to deal with you,” Brinsmead said. “This is changing today. I’d love to see our country doing more to harvest these kids. They are a resource we have not been embracing.

“We need to nurture these students: They need nurturing and outlets.”

“Even with the amount of time and trouble that goes into this, if we get one Einstein out of this, it’s worth it,” he said.

A call to the University community: You can help

The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), is coming to the Reno-Sparks Convention Center May 10-16. More than 1,600 finalists representing more than 50 countries will compete for more than $4 million in prizes. Based on past events, it is estimated that 20 percent of the finalists will already have patents or patents pending on their projects.

An estimated 1,000 judges, 150 language interpreters and  500 general volunteers are needed. Judges must be available May 12 for training and on May 13 to judge the exhibits and interact with students. Keep in mind, finals week begins May 7 and the spring semester’s last day for instruction is May 13.

Judges for the event must have a doctorate degree or six years of experience in a field equivalent to one of the judging categories:

  • Animal Sciences
  • Behavioral and Social Sciences
  • Biochemistry
  • Cellular and Molecular Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Earth and Planetary Science
  • Engineering: Electrical and Mechanical
  • Energy and Transportation
  • Engineering: Materials and Bioengineering
  • Environmental Management
  • Environmental Science
  • Mathematical Sciences
  • Medicine and Health
  • Microbiology
  • Physics and Astronomy
  • Plant Sciences

“We’re bringing the brightest young high school people in the world to our community, and we need well-qualified academics, including professors, post docs and in some instances graduate students, who have the disciplinary expertise that is needed to properly judge these exhibits,” said Dick Simmonds, an emeritus University professor in physiology and co-chair of the ISEF Judging Committee.


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