Showing off their science

AMES, Iowa -- Allison Wilson has made 60 test batches of ethanol fermented from bluestem grasses.

The senior at West Central Valley High School in Stuart has experimented with the enzymes and the cook times to see which combinations produce the most ethanol. Her research has convinced her that bluestem grasses can be a good source of ethanol. The grasses are native to Iowa. They don't have to be replanted year after year. And producing fuel from prairie grasses wouldn't divert corn from its other uses.

Wilson's work will be on display later this month at the annual State Science and Technology Fair of Iowa in Hilton Coliseum on the Iowa State University campus. It's Iowa's state tournament of science fairs. And it will feature answers to science questions of all kinds, including "Which Gas is Better: Regular or E-85?" "Shingles vs. Inside Temperature: Are You Hot or Not?" "Do Energy Drinks Boost Your Energy?" "Does One Bad Apple Spoil the Whole Bunch?" and "How Much Pollution is in Crystal Lake?"

About 460 students in grades six through 12 from all over Iowa are expected to enter about 340 projects, said Andrea Spencer, the director of the state science fair. The young scientists will compete for scholarships, monetary awards, prizes and trips to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Indianapolis in May.

The public is invited to see the young scientists and their research projects on Friday, March 24, from 1-5 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum and to hear student presentations from 7-9 p.m. in the Scheman Building. On Saturday, March 25, public hours in Hilton Coliseum are 9 a.m. to noon and during the award ceremonies from 4-6:30 p.m. The event is free.

And while Wilson has won scholarships during her nine years in science fairs, that's not the first thing she mentions when asked about why she competes.

"I really enjoy doing it," said Wilson, who plans to study engineering at Iowa State next fall. "It keeps me active in science and research. It's really made me interested in a lot of things. I also get to travel, make contacts and meet a lot of people."

Larry Schwinger, one of Wilson's teachers at West Central Valley High School, will bring 20 student projects to the state science fair. He said the science fair teaches his students a lot of valuable lessons.

"The science fair is a way of not only getting students to apply the scientific method, but it's also a way of getting students to think and express ideas clearly, concisely and in an organized method," said Schwinger, who teaches physics, chemistry and physical science. "It also requires them to do research on a topic and take that topic and extend it to something that is their own work."

Spencer, who has directed the state science fair for six years and was a science fair winner during her student days, said the state science fair is very good at connecting the student researchers with professors and professionals willing to share expertise and advice.

After all, she said, "You can never network too early."