Young scientists begin the work of solving problems

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Two young scientists from St. Mary's County earned a trip recently to the big time — the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles.

This is the Oscars of the high school science fair world. Only those who fashioned the best of the best science fair projects attend. Shefali Shah and Kelles Gordge, students at Great Mills High School, were sent to the Intel fair by the St. Mary's County Science and Engineering Fair Board after winning high honors in county and regional competition.

The Intel fair is full of smart young students who have hitched their intellect to the challenges and rigors of the scientific world.

What's striking about the projects that carried the two St. Mary's students to the Intel fair is that they set out to solve real-world problems.

Shah explored the notion of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay by spraying clay from a nearby quarry onto unnatural algae blooms, sinking them so they don't block sunlight and use up oxygen, choking off other forms of life in the bay.

Gordge set out to save human lives. She invented a device that continuously monitors and tracks the sounds of a patient's lungs, and wrote a computer program that visualizes these sounds to allow easier monitoring. She tackled this project after hearing from rescue squad volunteers, including her father, that patients whose lungs may be filling with fluid because of congestive heart failure are currently monitored periodically, not continuously, with a stethoscope.

All this is a far cry from the baking soda volcanoes that used to populate science fairs.

It's not surprising that these research projects are intended to have practical applications. The work of scientists and engineers in St. Mary's County, most of them associated with Patuxent River Naval Air Station, is not usually theoretical. It is focused on solving problems.

The specialty of the United States is technological innovation, and that's a hallmark of the work at Pax River as well, where advances in manned and unmanned aircraft are developed and tested.

Many of the greatest problems that challenge the nation and the world now will not be solved by politics, and they sure won't be solved by sitting on the couch griping about politics. The solutions are likely to involve science and technology.

This is how new sources of energy will be developed, how medical advances will improve lives, how pollution will be combatted. But none of this will come through wishing and hoping. It's going to come through ideas, trial and error, and hard work. These Great Mills students, both of whom are in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics academy at the school, and others like them are already at that work and swill be sticking to it. Shah, a senior at Great Mills who will be attending the University of Maryland, College Park next fall, is planning to do more work on the algae bloom project. Gordge is a junior and is looking to refine her lung-monitoring project. "I'd like to continue it. It could really help people," she said. There's no finer reason for young people to apply themselves to scientific work.