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Creativity shines at San Juan Basin Science Fair as it returns to Fort Lewis College after 20-year hiatus
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Creativity shines at San Juan Basin Science Fair as it returns to Fort Lewis College after 20-year hiatus

FLC Student with snakeDURANGO— Dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, Yisrael “Izzy” Lamb, an assistant professor of Chemistry at Fort Lewis College, guided a group of middle students as they dripped water beads mixed with alginate and a fluorescent dye into a stirring solution of calcium chloride. Under blue light, the resulting alginate spheres glowed brightly, much to the delight of the students. 

“The color of light emitted from a molecule gives us a sense of how much energy it contains,” Lamb said as students took turns making glowing, gooey bubbles. 

The demonstration was one of many tours surrounding this year’s San Juan Basin Science Fair, held at Fort Lewis College for the first time in more than 20 years.

More than 80 middle and high schoolers from all over the region —including Dolores, Ignacio, and Dove Creek — gathered at FLC on February 20 to compete in the fair.

Teacher doing a demo at science fairThis year, categories included computer programming, engineering designs, and practical research applications for agricultural and ranching operations, such as gray water analysis and optimizing cattle feed for proper digestion.

Callie Cole, an associate professor at FLC’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said she was impressed by this year’s projects; three stood out.

One student designed a highly sophisticated self-watering system for three plants, including 3-D printing, LED lights, and specific information about the plants’ different needs.

 

“He just went there; he did not hold back. It had computer programming, plant species information, chemistry, electronic connectivity; it had a lot of different science fields.”

A Dove Creek student used materials around the house to re-create a cow’s four stomachs —using yogurt for one and orange juice for another— and then analyzed how well they digested different feeds.

The 2024 San Juan Basin Science Fair was held at Fort Lewis College for the first time in more than 20 years. More than 80 middle and high schoolers from all over the region —including Dolores, Ignacio, and Dove Creek — gathered at FLC on February 20 to compete in the fair. Another student was interested in testing how protective different hair sprays are. Using the products found in her grandmother's hair salon, she sprayed other sprays on the receipt paper (which is heat sensitive) before using a flatiron on the paper to see how protective it was.

“She had three trials of each, which were well thought out. There were so many creative projects using their resources on hand - that’s my favorite,” Cole said.

That project was also the favorite for Grace Hotsenpiller, a first-year FLC student who volunteered as a judge at the event.

“The kids put so much work into their projects and were excited to tell us about them. It was an awesome experience,” she said. “I was really happy I could help out with this one.”

Added Cole: “I love the energy. Science fair is about looking around your house, looking around what your parents are doing, looking around your space, and asking a question about it,” Cole said. “It reminds me of how creative science is. It’s fun. “The creativity of these science fair projects absolutely blew me away."

Creepy crawlies and gooey, glowy bubbles

While some attendees competed in the Science Fair, FLC students and faculty managed tours for students in the animal behavior, physical chemistry, and analytical chemistry laboratories.

Student with display at science fair. Emma Leary, a student and a lab coordinator at FLC’s Biology Department, asked students if they wanted to touch Isabelle, a ball python with a translucent, albino-like appearance. 

“She won’t bite,” she assured the group of uncharacteristically silent, wide-eyed students sitting with legs crisscrossed on the lab floor, who slowly gathered up the courage to touch the snake.

Nearby, Izzy Lamb was talking to a group of students about how to use a spectrometer, and in Cole’s tour, students ignited a 6000K plasma to observe atomic emission.

“The goal of having the Science Fair brought back to FLC after all these years is to inspire middle and high school students in our region to pursue STEM careers and higher education,” said Lucy Perry, director of the fair and a member of the education team for the Powerhouse Science Center.

“We wanted to show these kids the current research that FLC students are doing and show them what it’s like to be a college student, too.”

Students and teachers in the lab.Cole said at the fairgrounds, when the kids were waiting to present their science fair projects or were done giving them, the options to provide real science experiences for them were limited.

So, a couple of years ago, Jeff Susor, executive director at the Powerhouse, and Cole started dreaming up a science fair held within short walking distance of FLC’s research facilities.

This year, Cole said students got to choose from the “What is it like to be a scientist” tour and the “What is it like to go to college” tour. “In previous years, there were no science labs at a walkable distance from that, and students couldn’t see research happening in an actual laboratory. Not to mention, it was really cool that they got to experience how college works. They got college tours and got to eat at the cafeteria. The cafeteria excited middle schoolers much more than I thought it would,” she added.

“As they were loading up the buses, they were all bubbly and excited, thinking about how they would build on their project for next year. I think that’s a very good sign.”

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