Global flavor spices up science fair

2012 Intel International Science & Engineering Fair opens in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH ─ Science is an international endeavor, as the more than 1,500 students converging on Pittsburgh this week are learning firsthand. Coming from 68 countries, regions and territories, the talented youngsters are finalists in the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest international precollege science competition. The Intel ISEF is administered by Society for Science & Public, which publishes Science News.

The competition runs from May 13 to May 18, featuring projects as diverse as their countries of origin. Two Jordanians, for example, used salt from the Dead Sea to store up solar heat during the day and generate electricity at night. A teen from Saudi Arabia explored an herbal treatment for Dengue fever, a problem in her country after floods. And a student from Hawaii upset that her dog had to be put down after losing a leg (thanks to the lack of treatment facilities on her island) developed a prosthetic canine limb.

Like Olympic athletes, many of the budding scientists arrived sporting colorful uniforms. The Canadians wear red shirts emblazoned with maple leaves. The Taiwanese look classy in white. And the Brazilians attract attention everywhere they go in their neon yellow hoodies striped with blue.

But there’s more to all this than just national pride. The marker-drawn emblems that decorate Italy’s poster include not only the country’s flag, but also Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Students from the Philippines adorned their poster with the native flora and fauna they studied, from coral and sea slugs to plants that extract copper from contaminated soil.

Amidst pockets of German, Arabic and halting English, a common language of curiosity has begun to emerge. After unpacking their own projects in the exhibit hall, many of the students wandered over to check out the work of their neighbors from distant lands.

In one booth, 16-year-old Abhishek Rajadas of Tempe, Ariz., explained a sensor system that can spot damage to carbon fiber. Cracks change the material’s resistance to the flow of electricity.

“That’s really great,” said 18-year-old Melvin Zammit from Malta. “Have you patented it yet?” Zammit built a 3-D display out of rows of spinning LEDs. After shaking Rajadas’ hand, Zammit strolled over to — somewhat shyly — ask a Ukrainian about her work cooling natural gas turbines.

Listening to a Lebanese youth extol the virtues of a Chinese device that uses electromagnetic energy to spin a ring, or a pair in the astronomy and physics section debate the pros and cons of working with photomultiplier tubes, it’s easy to forget how young the students are. But then I heard a joke about belonging to the government’s secret dark energy department from the new comic book movie The Avengers.

The finalists finished setting up their projects May 14, fixing the odd part that broke in transport or belched smoked when plugged in. Stay tuned for more coverage throughout the week, as students meet with Nobel Prize winners on May 15, present their projects to the public on May 17 and compete for more than $3 million in awards. Winners will be announced on Friday, May 18.

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