Sixth grader Bryana Cervantes Altamirano holds a heat lamp to power a windmill alongside her science project team member Dylan Trejo-Huerta and Angel Huitrado, of El Camino Real Academy, as they prepare their project to be judged Tuesday at the Santa Fe Public Schools STEM Fair at Santa Fe Community College.
Emi Ortega, left, and Valentina Palma, third graders at Nina Otero Community School, explain their project about a pulley system used to feed pets to judge Neal Schaeffer on Tuesday at the STEM Fair at Santa Fe Community College.
Valentina Palma, Emi Ortega and Damien Nuno recently noticed a problem: Sometimes, physical or space limitations can make it difficult to feed a dog.
The three third graders at Nina Otero Community School imagined a complex contraption in response to this problem: a pulley system, controlled from the pet owner’s bed, that would deliver food right to the dog bowl.
It could be helpful for just about anyone — from people who have to keep their dogs separated during feeding time to those who have trouble bending down or reaching into giant bags for a scoop of kibble — but it’s designed to assist bed-bound pet owners.
With their device, Valentina said, “If people are handicapped or too sick to get out of bed, they can still feed their pets.”
Emi, Valentina and Damien presented a model of their pulley-powered dog feeder — constructed from cardboard boxes — to judges at this week’s Santa Fe Public Schools STEM Fair at Santa Fe Community College. The annual event, held Tuesday, partners students, largely from grades 3-8, with more than 30 volunteer judges — many of whom are current or former educators, academics and scientists — from the Santa Fe Alliance for Science.
The result is a room full of experts — some of whom possess numerous advanced degrees, have built storied careers at Los Alamos National Laboratory or Sandia National Laboratories, or fit the “mad scientist” archetype. They encourage students to get excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, said Santa Fe Alliance for Science President and STEM fair judge Kathy Brechner.
“It’s really a good opportunity for them for public speaking and presenting themselves to adults because an astrophysicist [to] a third grader can be a very scary thing,” Brechner said.
The STEM fair is the culminating event of the district’s winter season of science fairs, said Angie Walker, Santa Fe Public Schools’ STEM coordinator.
Student projects examined everything from petri dishes of growing cultures to miniature solar-powered windmills, their findings displayed on colorful trifold poster boards or online presentations.
One student built an app designed to provide users with tourist information about particular cities.
Another analyzed how the material of different kinds of water bottles, including plastic, stainless steel and clay, affect the quality of water. A third covered soil from the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire with different materials to see which limited water runoff and rejuvenated the soil best.
In addition to teaching academic STEM content, Walker said the projects allowed students to explore their interests and develop skills necessary to complete and present research, including perseverance, self-direction, delegation and teamwork.
“When students have the opportunity to do a project that they really feel ownership over, it can really influence their educational mindset,” she said.
This year’s fair also marked the first time the school district partnered with Santa Fe Community College, which hosted the fair and introduced many students to facilities available on campus, including the planetarium. Walker said she hopes the venue creates another theme for students: A college education, like STEM inquiry, is accessible to them.
“They’re important, and their educational journey is important,” she said.
Judgment time isn’t meant to be stressful. The alliance’s goal is to offer students from varied backgrounds an opportunity to get creative in producing original projects, said Bill Earl, who helped organize judges.
Judges are encouraged to point out things they liked and things students might consider changing in their experiments, Brechner added.
Micaelah Balladares and Sami Gonzales, seventh graders at El Dorado Community School, presented their project — an experiment designed to test if sunlight improves memory — to judge John Dressman, a former educator and longtime science enthusiast.
The two young scientists asked two research subjects — their mothers — to remember random questions, like, “What’s your second favorite color?” or “If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?” after a 10-minute break. Then the girls graded their subjects’ responses on a scale from 1, meaning they completely forgot, to 5, meaning they recalled the precise wording of the question. They repeated the process every day, morning and night, for 10 days.
Dressman applauded Micaelah and Sami’s use of controlled environments and memory tests and encouraged the girls to imagine the applicability of their project on workplace design: Would workers be more capable or productive in offices with sunlight access?
He also suggested a few potential improvements. Their grading system could become more objective, Dressman said, perhaps dependent on the number of words the subjects placed correctly when recalling the questions.
And they’d need a larger group of test subjects to add to the validity of their experiment, he said, a task that can be a challenge even for professional social scientists.
The top three projects in each grade level were awarded trophies and gift cards.
But handing out prizes isn’t the main reason the alliance and its team of judges come back each year, Brechner said.
“Our goal is really to get them excited about science,” she said of students. “… The most important thing we do is try to give them positive encouragement.”