South Philly students show off science skills at citywide fair

Middle and high schoolers from Our Lady of Hope and the Academy at Palumbo competed last week in the 40th annual Carver Science Fair.

Eight grader Jasmine Mercado of Our Lady of Hope studied how different liquids affect plant growth over time. (GRACE MAIORANO/SPR)

From the effect of osmosis on gummy bears to the extraction of DNA in strawberries, South Philadelphia students showcased their latest experiments at the 40th annual citywide George Washington Carver Science Fair.

Middle and high school-aged researches from Our Lady of Hope school in the Lower Moyamensing neighborhood and the Academy at Palumbo in Bella Vista translated their ordinary classroom projects for the regional level, competing with hundreds of other Philadelphia students as they dabbled in various scientific fields such as botany, biology and chemistry.

While science studies may have shifted since the fair’s establishment in the late 1970s, the traditional scientific method procedure, including formulating a hypothesis, performing procedure and analyzing results, will never be a superannuated system, as the event’s successful evolution concurs with the 21st century’s innovation of technology and findings.

Eleventh grader Nopur Ghosh of the Academy at Palumbo studied DNA extraction in strawberries. (GRACE MAIORANO/SPR)

Considering the rise of STEM curriculums, which focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in preparing students for the future job market, the Carver Science Fair could be more considered more pertinent now than ever in its 40-year history.

“It grew, because we’re living in a scientific age now,” said director and chairman Thomas Anderson Jr. “That’s why it grew, and kids are involved in science every day. Every day. Everything they do. Food you eat, clothes you wear….Even if (students) are not in the science field, we need them to be aware of science, because they got to make decisions on where we go from here.”

Anderson, a former teacher who was also the first director of community relations at Temple University in the early 1970s, says the fair, which was founded in honor of the prominent African-American scientist, inventor and humanitarian, has hosted 37,000 students since its inception.

With thousands of dollars in sponsorships each year from major contributors such as The Franklin Institute and Dow Chemical, the fair hosts two competitions each year in the beginning of March, including the grades 4-to-6 event at the Academy of Natural Sciences and the grades 7-to-12 event at Temple.

Seventh grader Max Avila of Our Lady of Hope studied how salt affects the buoyancy of an egg.

While forecasted snowy weather can present perturbations every year, last Tuesday, the sunshine allowed for South Philly students to both mingle and learn at the newly constructed Aramark STAR Complex on Temple’s campus.

“When I walk around here, I see different types of topics that I really am interested in – things I haven’t known before,” said eighth-grader Jasmine Mercado of Our Lady of Hope. “…I get to meet new people around me and make new friends.”

Like Mercado, who studied which liquids would make plants grow the tallest, several students say the most gratifying part of the fair is not only showcasing their own hard work but learning new scientific perspectives and procedures from others’ projects.

Whether immersing in flora or fruits, South Philly students say seeing others’ projects at the fair allows for them to reconsider their own reasoning and beliefs about certain subjects of science.

“I have different experiences of what other people are doing,” said 11th-grader Nopur Ghosh, who studied the extraction of DNA from strawberries using various solutions. “…Different people have different opinions, and it’s better to see what they’re thinking compared to my thinking.”

“I’m just around people who also enjoy things that I like in science,” added seventh-grader Max Avila, of Our Lady of Hope, who studied how salt affects the buoyancy of an egg. “It motivates me to continue to experiment.”

Exposure to science lessons outside of the traditional classroom setting offers an alternative approach to education. The range of seventh- to 12th-graders also lends an opportunity for leadership, as middle schoolers are introduced to nearly collegiate-level experiments.

Seventh grader Grace Hudon of Our Lady of Hope studied how osmosis and diffusion affects the growth of gummy bears.

Gillian Neff, who has been a judge with the fair for close to 12 years, notices this mentorship among participants each year.

“I think, in part, it normalizes science,” Neff said. “It does take it out of the classroom. You see that it’s not just you and your teacher that are interested in it. There’s other kids here. There’s older kids here.”

Following an awards ceremony at the Academy of Natural Sciences, winners of last week’s event will move on to the Delaware Valley Science Fair at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in early April, when students from across 12 counties will vie for nearly $6 million in scholarship and prize money.

Eight grader Brennan Hewitt of Our Lady of Hope studied how lighting temperature affects the rate which what food spoils.

But whether clinching a first-place title or receiving honorable mention, students agree the true reward lies in experimenting.

And, some are already brainstorming projects for next year.

“Just the whole feeling and emotion of being here,” said eight-grader Brennan Hewitt, of Our Lady of Hope, who studied how lighting temperature affects the rate in which food spoils. “Just seeing everybody here and then having the judges come to you and see how much hard work you spent on it and all of the payoff…I like seeing all the other projects and how hard other people worked to get in here.” 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano