Science Competitions a Virtual Hit

Central Methodist University’s science department played host to around two dozen Missouri high school and middle school students over Zoom last week for virtual versions of the annual Missouri Junior Academy of Science (MJAS) and International Science and Engineering Fair competitions.

In previous iterations of the contests, students from all over the region have come to campus with their teachers to present their findings from a research project completed over as long as several months. This year, the projects took the same amount of work and creativity, but the presentations happened over Zoom rather than in person.

“They did really, really well,” said Dr. James ‘Tiger’ Gordon, CMU professor of chemistry. “The teachers do a phenomenal job of preparing, mentoring, and coaching them and practicing with them. It’s a huge time commitment, not only for students but also for the teachers.”

Gordon, who oversees the MJAS portion of the day’s events, said that attendance was predictably lower than it has been in previous years, but that the quality of the presentations was outstanding. Subjects ranged from studying the efficiency of propeller designs to using artificial intelligence to predict cancer aggressiveness. Overall, nine students in the MJAS competition were chosen to move on to the state level in April. Their names, schools, and teachers are listed below:

  • Carter Nutter – Tuscumbia, Connie Wyrick
  • Adriana Crews – Russellville, Christina Crews
  • Terri Barnhard – Tuscumbia, Connie Wyrick
  • Kyle Chen – Rock Bridge, Sarah Laster
  • Brooklyn Pendleton – Tuscumbia, Connie Wyrick
  • Zach Cline – Tuscumbia, Connie Wyrick
  • Akhil Elangoran – Rock Bridge, James Meyer
  • Kylie Cline – Tuscumbia, Connie Wyrick
  • Emily Ratliff – Higbee, Charles Schroeder

Many of these same students earned recognition for their projects in the International Science and Engineering Fair, which was also a success despite the challenges of going remote this year. Normally, the event would look much more like a typical science fair, with students presenting their findings on posters and answering questions by the judges. But this year, CMU students and outside scientists were given the students’ papers and then a Zoom presentation to judge based on a rubric.

All in all, the presentations and participation were enjoyable for everyone involved.

“These are kids who love science,” said Greg Thurmon, associate professor of biology. “Since there were only 26, I’d say [the ones that participated] were even more motivated and wanted to do it no matter what.”

First-place category award winners included Kiley Bailey of Tipton, Terri Barnhart of Tuscumbia, Emma Burns of Tipton, Kylie Cline of Tuscumbia, Akhil Elangovan of Rock Bridge, Kylee Gengler of Tipton, George Jia of Rock Bridge, and Gabriel Simmons of Tuscumbia.

Second-place awards went to Sam Bishop of Tipton, Kyle Chen of Rock Bridge, Sarah Guymon of Tipton, Stephanie Twenter of Tipton, Jonah Visser of Tuscumbia, and the duo of Zihau and Rohan of Rock Bridge.

Students going home with third-place awards were Haylee Berve of Tipton, Chloe Petree of Tipton, and Kynies Xiao of Tipton. Many students also came away with special awards in different areas.

Thurmon and Gordon both praised the work of CMU students and faculty for helping to facilitate the competitions, acting as judges, guides, and mentors for the students. The Central Methodist technology services department was also crucial in making sure everyone had a sufficient connection over Zoom, Thurmon added.

And while the hope is to hold the competitions in person again next year, Gordon believes the competition serves as evidence that remote participation is possible if necessary.

“We could see in the future for some school districts that may not have the money to provide transportation and a day off for teachers, this could still be a viable option for them, for their kids to participate at a distance,” he said.

No matter the format, these science competitions will continue to be important for the students involved and enjoyable for the CMU faculty and students as well.

“I’m always really impressed with the amount of work that the high school and middle school students and their teachers do,” said Gordon.

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