BERKSHIRE – In a corner of the Berkshire Elementary School’s basketball court, eighth-grader Emma Fadden held up a pot of stunted cat grass smothered in bacteria. On the chair next to her sat a perfectly healthy pot of cat grass.

“It’s supposed to show how soda can be bad for your body,” she said, explaining that the pot of stunted grass was watered with soda. Fadden said she expected the bacteria to grow after using soda. “I hypothesized that bacteria would grow after doing research on it.”

In another corner of the basketball court, eighth-grader Daniel Antillon rolled a ball bearing along two wooden dowels and into a sequence of other ball bearings and magnets. He explained to a nearby kindergartner that it was a “Gauss rifle” that uses magnets to launch ball bearings like a cannon.

Next to Antillon was Ari Barbour, who set up a poster explaining her experiment beside to a handful of potted pole beans. Some of those beans, she said, grew higher after using a brand name fertilizer, while others fertilized with generics just didn’t grow as high.

“I think it worked better because it was a powdered fertilizer,” Barbour hypothesized.

Kindergartners from the Berkshire school seemed interested in all three.

Those experiments were only a handful of those scattered around Berkshire Elementary School’s basketball court Tuesday morning where, as Kindergartners filed between experiments, eighth graders practiced the presentations they would have to give for Berkshire’s annual middle school science fair later that night.

According to Katie O’Shea, Berkshire’s middle school science teacher, students from sixth, seventh and eighth grade selected their own projects for the fair. With the exception of some guidance in the sixth-grade class, O’Shea said students had their own agency when it came to developing an experiment for the science fair.

“If they get to actually pick it, it just makes them a lot more interested, and making it a community event gets them to actually want to show their work, so it’s not just for me,” O’Shea said. “They get to actually show what they’ve done and take some pride in what they’ve done.”

Eighth-graders Aubrey Fadden and Ari Barbour share their projects with Berkshire kindergartners while, in the background, Daniel Antillon and Hayden Stockton set up their homemade Gauss rifle. (MICHAEL FRETT, Messenger Staff)

Students had to follow the scientific method for their projects, identifying a single question and the different variables and measurements they’d have to use in order to answer that question.

Outside of those bounds, according to O’Shea, students simply took different project ideas and “just ran with them,” surprising even their science teacher with some of the experiments they’d bring into class.

Some projects were, according to the students who developed them, spun-off of specific classroom units.

Eighth-grader Trinity Duncan, for example, said she it was O’Shea’s physics unit that led her to her study comparing the effect different liquid bases could have on a lit candle.

Duncan’s hypothesis was simple – when there was a different liquid base under the candle and a cup was placed over both, the candle would burn out at a different rate depending on that liquid. 

When she found that apple juice kept the candle alive the longest, Duncan concluded it was probably because apple juice had more oxygen than the other liquids, as oxygen is a fuel.

Other projects, according to O’Shea, seemed to come out of nowhere, like Antillon’s and partner Hayden Stockton’s Gauss rifle, or Dylan Tatro’s and Ian Ross’s experiment where, by using a combination of baking soda, water and a microwave transformer, they could burn images into stray planks of wood.

Demonstrating this project Tuesday morning, Tatro and Ross spread a mixture of baking soda and water over the face of a plank of wood. After plugging a microwave transformer into a nearby outlet, the two switched on the transformer and planted two wires extending from said transformer into opposite ends of the wood.

According to Tatro, the electricity from the transformer began following a path set by the water and baking soda mixture over the wood. As that electricity followed the “easiest path” through that mixture, it burned plant-like fractals into the wood.

“I saw a video on it on YouTube, and I thought it was really cool and wanted to learn more about it,” Tatro said.

Ian Ross, left, and Dylan Tatro, right, demonstrate their project for the Messenger, showing how a little baking soda and water can be used to guide electricity across a plank of wood in order to burn fractal-like images into the plank. (MICHAEL FRETT, Messenger Staff)

“A lot of them have these interesting ideas that they just haven’t done before, because they didn’t have a chance to do anything with them,” O’Shea said after the students’ demonstrations. “A lot of kids took a serious investment in this.”

For some, studies might not have panned out as expected.

Avery Choquette and John Viens, for example, built a pair of battery-powered cars – one out of cardboard and another out of wood – they were hoping to use to test aerodynamics of those vehicles, only to find that there wasn’t enough power in their motors to get either car to move.

While it was too late to really fix that mistake before the science fair, Choquette guessed “more engines” or “more electricity” could have fixed their problem.

While these projects provided a chance for students to practice the scientific method while also creating a science experience they could enjoy, their teacher hoped the students might find another simple observation as their experiments continued and they readied their presentations.

“I just really want kids to like science,” O’Shea said. “I just want them to see how cool science can be.”

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