Montana State University Billings held its first in-person science expo since 2019 on Friday.
244 young scientists from all over Eastern Montana presented 170 projects spread across several floors of the Health and Science building, in addition to professional exhibits. Students from grades 1-12 are allowed to compete.
“I think this is more organized than anything I did growing up,” said Joseph Miscimarra, who teaches courses at the Wise Wonders Children’s Museum as an AmeriCorps member. “It’s almost like a mini version of the peer review process that goes on in actual scientific communities.”
Judges score the students on originality, and how they apply the scientific method to explain how their results supported or refuted their hypothesis, said Caleb Music, a volunteer judge.
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“With the younger kids, I really like to make sure they have a good time. Getting kids in STEM, more than anything, is the important part of this, ”he said.
Reese Griesmer, a seventh grader from Lockwood School, described how the phase of the moon affects how many stars are visible in the night sky. She posted her findings on a tri-fold poster board and on a tri-fold brochure for judges to view.
As an astronomy enthusiast, she used her high-end camera, a telescope, and a sky ruler to make observations. Griesmer had an idea of what she would find, but she wanted to find out with the tools and without having to consult Google.
Her teacher assigned students to participate.
“At first I didn’t want to, but as it came closer, I got more and more excited,” Griesmer said.
Trask Wickens, a classmate of Griesmer, built bridges to see what designs would hold the most weight. In a matter of about a minute and a half, he built one of the designs to display – out of pencils and rubber bands.
“I was looking at some less expensive materials and something that I could do pretty quickly and easily, and still make it kind of complex,” he said, like a true engineer.
His smaller bridge holds 14 pounds before the pencils break themselves. The larger bridge is taller and wider, holding 5.4 pounds before collapsing.
Burns Barker is a sixth grader from Luther primary school in Red Lodge. He built a Tesla coil and tested how the coil disrupted signals from internet routers, phones, and a radio.
A tesla coil is an electrical resonant transformer circuit that was designed by Nikola Tesla in 1891. It produces high-voltage, low-current and high frequency alternating current electricity.
“The only one that showed a difference was the radio,” Barker said. “I think it’s because the internet and phone were better at finding signals.”
Barker’s mom, Carla, added that organizers are cautious about safety, so most of the presentations consisted of visuals on poster boards.
“Our eighth grader did a microbiology experiment, and she had to have a hood and a supervisor,” she said.
Carla also appreciates the feedback from judges because they are experts or are working in the field in the category that they judge, she said.
“I was afraid he was going to electrocute the dogs,” she added. “And he did burn a hole in the kitchen chair because of the soldering gun.”
The science expo is a tradition for the rural school because the curriculum there emphasizes science, she said.
The MT National Guard also demonstrated virtual reality to study anatomy, a wind tunnel, and a hand-held, infrared device that displayed its heat imaging on a screen. These tools are used in the military in various applications, and the crew teaches about the technology at schools throughout the state.
The crew recently demonstrated at Skyview and West high schools, said Steve Weber, a staff sergeant who teaches full-time about STEM and history. Students at West engaged in virtual reality simulations to learn about engines, he said.
Weber emphasized how critical VR is in modern military training.
“When you start a tank, it’s five gallons of fuel. Every time you shoot the gun, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars, so rather than that, we’ll go into a simulator and do that all day long and train the exact same way, ”he said.
The winning student will compete at the Montana State Fair in Missoula on March 28.
Another top project will be judged in the national Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta in May.