COLLEGE PARK – In the vast interior of Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, petite, 14-year-old Joanna C. Guy, dressed in rolled-up jeans and K-Swiss sneakers, worked with a team of other kids to create a tornado.
And to clean up a biohazard site.
And to replicate a tsunami and build wave barriers to protect a simulated beach.
And to land a blimp in pea-soup fog.
All the tasks were part of a national science competition for middle schoolers called the Young Scientist Challenge sponsored by Silver Spring-based Discovery Channel. Joanna and the four other kids on her team were among 40 finalists who had emerged from among 75,000 entries nationwide.
Joanna, a freshman at Garrett County’s Southern High School, made it to the finals with a unique social science project about educational expectations that she devised when she was an eighth-grader at Southern Middle School.
Other finalists’ projects ranged from a Florida girl who lowered egg cholesterol by controlling chickens’ diet to an Arizona boy who collected solar energy to heat air and water for his home.
Brought together for the finals, 19 girls and 21 boys worked in teams of five to tackle challenges based on the theme “Forces of Nature.” The teams had 90 minutes to complete each challenge. The top young scientist will be announced Wednesday based on performance in these challenges.
The theme for the seventh annual competition was inspired by the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia last year.
“Sadly, it had a lot more relevance after the hurricane season,” said Donald A. Baer, the Discovery Communications executive in charge of the national challenge.
Each student also performed an experiment to a camera and was judged on his or her ability to communicate the science behind the experiment.
“We’re trying to find the best communicator,” said Steve L. Jacobs, the competition’s head judge. “We’re looking for who touches your heart and captures your imagination.”
The lone Maryland student, Joanna, from Oakland, is “definitely in contention” for the top prize, Jacobs said.
The inspiration for Joanna’s project, which won in a regional science fair in Frostburg last fall, was the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the resulting anxiety in classrooms from the focus on testing.
Joanna said she wanted to answer the question: “Would students perform differently on a test if they think it’s difficult or easy?” The answer was yes.
Joanna created three vocabulary tests using eighth grade words. For eighth-graders at Southern Middle School in Oakland, she labeled the tests as vocabulary for sixth-, eighth- and 10th-graders.
Eighth-graders at Northern Middle School in Accident, took the same three tests, but they weren’t labeled by grade level.
After her parents helped her grade the 18,000 questions by hand, Joanna found that students performed better when they thought they were taking a sixth grade test and expected to do better.
Because she couldn’t afford electronic grading and spent a week grading the tests, Joanna said, “It made me realize how important funding is for science.”
Joanna said the results of her project translate beyond student testing.
“If you go into anything with confidence, you do better than if you have none,” she said.
The top young scientist will receive a $20,000 college scholarship, and all finalists receive $500, said Michelle Russo, a Discovery Channel spokeswoman.
Other prizes include a week at science camp, a telescope, a week at a national park and digital photography equipment, Russo said.
Although a goal of the challenge is to reward the best middle school scientists, Baer said the competition is also designed to motivate younger children and provide role models.
“We want to inspire young Americans to stay interested in science,” Baer said.
He said a program about the competition is scheduled to be broadcast around Christmas in the hopes that children will be home watching TV.
Even though she has just started high school, Joanna already has plans for college.
“I’ve thought about Georgetown, Penn State and Duke,” she said. Her ultimate goal is to be a science journalist. “Communications and writing are two of my better strengths,” Joanna said. For now though, Joanna is busy with her next science fair project: working on sonic and ultrasound systems to keep birds and bats from flying into electricity-generating windmills commonly found in her part of the state.