Young scientists take center stage


February 24, 2023

Jana Peterson

These students were recognized for having the top middle school projects at the Northeastern Minnesota Regional Science Fair Saturday.

Science fair offers time to shine, after months of hard work

The rewards of scientific pursuit are many. There's the satisfaction of learning and contributing to a greater body of knowledge, the excitement of experiments, recognition for a job well done. And, in the case of the Northeastern Minnesota Regional Science Fair, sometimes there's swag, travel or cold hard cash.

Students from five schools came together Saturday at the University of Minnesota Duluth to tell a small army of judges about the 65 science projects they'd been working on for months or even years, in some cases.

The projects were as different as the kids presenting them. Cloquet ninth-grader Ethan Lavan was inspired to study chickens after his family started raising a few in 2020, while his older sister, Grace Lavan, continued her study of the effects of the pipeline on wolf pack den location. Cloquet Middle School student McKenna Gandhi looked at the effect of hand sanitizer on bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

"I enjoy struggling to figure out and understand stuff and then, at the end, you see all your work come together," Gandhi said.

After students spent the morning presenting and answering questions from judges, organizers got busy tallying scores and preparing for the grand finale: the awards ceremony. That's when the young scientists get to be recognized in front of their peers, with first-, second- and third-place awards to go to State, a wide variety of special awards, and four large golden trophies, which are reserved for the most elite projects.

Cloquet freshman Parker Sickmann grew microgreens and simulated the 3G force it takes to get into space on some of the seeds, and compared their growth to a control group.

"They could be a viable food source for space exploration because they grow so fast and have high nutrients," said Sickmann, who won a trophy and a trip to Genius Olympiad in Syracuse, New York for his efforts.

Cloquet High School's top winner was Johanna Bernu, a sophomore who has been studying the disinfectant properties of the yellow water-lily. A Fond du Lac descendent, Bernu decided to prove some of the traditional knowledge she'd grown up hearing.

"I wanted to provide a scientific backing for traditional medicines that had been used for millennia," she said.

Bernu's ongoing experiments with the native plant earned her a second trip to the International Science and Engineering Fair, along with Duluth East student Emelyn Beaster, who used recycled microplastics to filter out pollutants in runoff.

Bernu said ISEF was amazing last year. "I was exposed to an entirely different new realm of science, and I was able to meet people from here in our country, and people I still talk to from places such as Slovenia."

Jana Peterson

Cloquet Middle School wolf researcher Finley Holz is thrilled to hear that he and science fair partner Jeremiah Bents were awarded the top middle school project at Saturday's Northeastern Minnesota Regional & American Indian Science and Engineering Fair.

Saturday marked the first time since 2020 that the regional science fair was held in person, although the 13 students from Babbitt whose teacher thought the fair was next weekend were judged online.

That ability to shift online was a good thing to come out of the pandemic. However, on the flip side, local science fair participation numbers plummeted, due to distance learning and teachers who stepped down from science fair.

Lucky for the young scientists, Cloquet science fair coach Cindy Welsh has no plans to step down from her science fair role, although she isn't going to teach full-time next year. It's been a passion for nearly 30 years, she said.

She credited her husband, Scott, science fair co-coach Bill Bauer, and lots of science fair alumni and volunteers for their help with everything from mentoring students to judging to making sure all the students get a meal at regionals.

"It couldn't happen in a vacuum," she said.


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