Science Wednesday: Picking a Winner

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By Mike Gill

I almost said no when I was asked to be a judge at the 2011 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). What a mistake that would have been!

I work in EPA’s Region 9 office in San Francisco. I was joined at ISEF by colleagues Ned Black, also from San Francisco, and Melissa Anley-Mills from Washington, DC.

Our goal was to find the project that best promoted environmental restoration, preservation and sustainability to receive the EPA Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award. We had the opportunity to review many worthy projects and hopefully encourage the kids to pursue a lifetime of scientific curiosity and even study environmental science and engineering. And what talent they have!

It was tough knowing that out of all the brilliant kids, we could only pick one winner. 299 out of the total 1500 projects fell under our categories of interest, which included environmental management and environmental sciences. From these, we narrowed it down to 59 posters to review on Day 1 (sans kids) and then 10 “semi-finalists,” who we interviewed on Day 2.

Two things that met the goal of sustainability for us were using “re-purposed” materials (leftovers), and when it was clear that the students considered the complete life cycle of their project. It was important that projects try to avoid any unintended consequences. In addition, the simpler a project was, the more elegant it tended to be—such as a device built using a discarded laundry basket and duct tape to harness wind power in the developing world.

The winner? We selected Param Jaggi from Plano, Texas for his project Algae-Mobile 3: Bioactive Energy and Carbon Dioxide Filtration in the Exhaust of a Car. His work may one day improve air quality by reducing contaminants from automobile exhaust and improve the health of anyone impacted by automobiles. We also selected two impressive runners up: a project from Ireland that used beach strangling lettuce seaweed as heating fuel briquettes, and a project that harnessed wave, wind and solar power to create electricity.

This 2011 Intel ISEF was a great experience and certainly restored any lost faith I had on today’s kids and their ability to excel at science, technology, engineering and math. And I’m proud that EPA is playing a part in recognizing them!

About the Author: Mike Gill works in the EPA Region 9 office as a liaison between the staff working on Superfund hazardous waste cleanups and researchers in our EPA labs nationwide.

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