CLAY COUNTY – Most students will compete in a science fair during their formal education, but not many will do so on an international stage.
Ridgeview High junior Michael Chen, 16, and Fleming Island High sophomore Gavin Baker, 16, will see their science fair experiments matched up against the top competitors from 81 countries and territories at the 2019 International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix next month. While taking home a win would be nice, both Chen and Baker find themselves even more excited to share their ideas with world leaders like Nobel Peace Prize winners.
“These are people you want to impress,” Baker said. “They’re leaders in science. They’re some of the top experts in their fields and it’s exciting and nerve wracking at the same time to know that they’ll be the judges of our projects.”
Chen’s createed a solar still that can store plants and reflect heat in such a way that the plants stored within would reach temperatures more than 200 degrees. As a result, transpiration would occur which would allow the plants release their stored water. The still catches this water and it’s this water that could then be drinkable.
“I read about the [Ugandan] water crisis and was trying to come up with ideas to solve it,” Chen said last February. “In Uganda, they’ve been trying to fix this problem for a very long time but because the long-term solutions for things like this are related to government, problem solvers are often up against corruption. This [corruption] has been holding back development in these areas...and it leads to a cycle that they can’t escape. I want this to be a solution that can empower the people of Uganda to give them the ability and access to water using the plants they already have.”
Like Chen’s project, Baker also aims to solve a real-world problem: the energy crisis.
“My project is a continuation of a past project,” Baker said. “I came up with a way to control air flow in each individual room of a home to eliminate hot spots and cold spots which is essentially just an unbalanced system. What this [balance fix] does is cut down costs of having to operate an air conditioning system while being more energy efficient.”
This May will be Baker’s first international science fair, and Chen’s second. He attended last year and he’s taking everything he learned from that experience to excel even further in 2019. According to Chen, last year, he learned about what a project can do beyond the International Science Fair. Specifically, he learned that the data collected from his project can be sent to institutions like NASA or the UN.
“I plan to do that as well so that I can really show them that my project can have a positive impact on the world,” Chen said.
While this science fair can land Baker and Chen prize money and scholarships, it also lands them a great reference point on college applications and future resumes. Despite how focused their projects are, neither are quite sure of where their career lies just yet. Baker said he wants to do everything – he’s especially fond of science and engineering – but music as well. Chen wants to be in a leadership position, with a focus on science or politics, or perhaps, a melding of the two.
For now, though, Baker and Chen are focusing on the coming weeks as they prepare to head to Phoenix, where both expect to make new friends with fellow researchers around the world.
“I remember after last year, I kept telling myself, ‘I really want to come back here,’ because it’s so much fun,” Chen said. “I met so many amazing people. I made some friends from around the world that I’m literally still talking to right now...I remember talking to some really cool people and we made a pact to try our best and get back to international to hang out again.”
While Chen has reunions with friends from around the world, Baker will be taking in as much of the experience as he can. It’s been a years-long dream to do so.
“Starting in sixth grade, I knew a dream of mine would be me being able to compete [internationally] one day and I’m just really glad that I can do that this year,” Baker said.
Despite the fun and excitement of the international competition, it will be a nervous time for Science Fair Director and Secondary Science Curriculum Specialist for the Clay County School District, Chris Okamoto. That’s because this is the final stage in the competition featuring the best of the best.
“International is the culmination of the whole yearly science fair cycle and it’s the best of the best from each country and each state competing,” Okamoto said. “Students have opportunities for full-ride scholarships to colleges, cash scholarships from various organizations and to place in their category.”
While Okamoto is hopeful Baker and Chen won’t come home empty-handed, he believes that even if they did, they’d be richer in experience as a result.
“This is such a great opportunity and with something like the international science fair, even if you don’t come home with thousands of dollars in prize money or an award, you come back richer for the experience and better equipped to compete next year in return,” Okamoto said.
Beyond the prize money, the scholarships and the awards, Chen sees the science fair as altruistic for students around the world.
“I think that doing things like the International Science Fair, you get a lot of attention towards science and I think that’s really important because one of the things I really care about is spreading an interest in science,” he said. “I really feel like a lot of students don’t believe they can make an impact in the world, but I feel like doing things...like science fair projects can make ideas come to reality. Spreading what we’re doing is really important because it’s inspiring to other kids.”