Science fair brings young thinkers back to Radford campus
Biking down the side of a mountain, Jesse Dulaney often finds himself relying too heavily on his front brakes. It can lead to some unpleasant situations.
“The wheel locks up, and I would often crash or run into a tree because I had no control of the bike,” said Dulaney, a student at Floyd County High School and the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School.
Those situations sparked an idea for Dulaney to construct an anti-lock braking mechanism for his mountain bike.
He connected a sensor that detected wheel speed to a small mechanism he applied to his bike’s front brake. When the sensor detected the front wheel was turning slower than the back wheel – or locking up – the sensor sent a signal to the small motor on the front brake, causing it to oscillate and allow the wheel to continue to roll and not lock.
Dulaney’s impressive engineering exploits earned him one of the two grand awards at the 32nd Blue Ridge Highlands Regional Science Fair hosted by Radford University on March 3-4.
The fair gives middle and high school students a rare opportunity to show and talk about their scientific prowess and research through poster displays and oral presentations in numerous fields, including animal science, behavioral and social science, biochemistry and chemistry, cell and molecular biology, computer science, earth and planetary science, environmental management and science, engineering, mathematics, medicine and health, microbiology, physics and astronomy and plant science.
This year’s fair, held in Radford University’s Peters Hall gym, was the first in-person event in three years. The COVID-19 global health pandemic forced the event online in 2021 and 2022.
“We were thrilled to have everybody back in person and be able to see them and their displays,” said Radford Professor of Biology Kimberly Lane, Ph.D., who serves as co-director of the regional fair along with Christine Hermann, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the university’s Department of Chemistry.
“The excitement here is contagious,” Lane continued. “When you see the students, they are nervous but excited to share with everybody what they are doing.”
As she set up her project on Friday, Radford High School and Southwest Virginia Governor’s School senior Tommie Bloomer said she did not have any nerves at the moment, the day before the competition began, but admitted, “the waiting is always the worst part.”
But Bloomer, the drum major in Radford High’s marching band, exuded excitement for the opportunity to share her new design for a clarinet lyre.
“I’m a nerd,” Bloomer said, laughing. “I really love learning, and I love getting the opportunity to do something like this, to do research and talk to people about it.”
Students shared their projects among 75 judges who came to the event armed with a variety of scientific expertise and experiences. They ranged from university faculty members to graduate students and working professionals in industry.
“We bring in people whose careers involve the topics we cover,” Lane said.
First-place winners in each senior category received an invitation to compete in the virtual Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair in April. First place winners in the junior categories received an invitation to apply to the Broadcom Masters competition in Washington, D.C., in October.
Two grand award winners were announced at the end of the competition on Saturday, March 4. One of those awards went to Dulaney for his bicycle anti-locking braking system. The other went to Davis Reitzel for his extraordinary exploration of the Collatz Conjecture, a well-known unsolved math problem.
Reitzel, a student at Carroll County High School and Southwest Virginia Governor’s School, didn’t solve the problem, “but I found out a lot of cool things along the way,” he said while explaining his project.
Duaney and Reitzel now have an opportunity to show their research at the International Science and Engineering Fair in May in Dallas, Texas. They will compete with thousands of students from about 85 countries.
Plus, “we fund the trip for the students and their adult sponsors,” Lane explained.
That includes food, flights and hotel rooms for the nearly weeklong event. “It adds up,” Lane continued. “The students are treated like rock stars while they’re there, so it's definitely worth the expense.”
Funds to cover those expenses often come from generous donors, the professor explained.
Radford University is one of the few science fair hosts that does not charge students to participate. “We believe every student should have equal ability to participate regardless of whether or not they can afford a registration fee,” Lane said. “We have that capability through our fundraising efforts.”
Getting a chance to compete in the regional science fair on Radford’s campus was a thrilling experience for many of the middle and high school students.
“It’s super cool, and it’s great to be able to interact with college professors and other students and their projects,” said Havva Gasimova, a senior at Radford High School and Southwest Virginia Governor’s School, who won first place in the Biomedical and Health Sciences Cellular and Molecular Biology category for her project focused on links between environment and food allergies.
Gasimova’s sentiment is one Lane and Hermann often hear from their own Radford students.
“We’ve had several students who came to study at Radford University tell us that the first time they saw the campus was when they came here to compete in the science fair,” Lane said. “They tell us they loved the campus and the environment and really wanted to be here.”
The fair brings to campus hundreds of students from a large geographic region each year who may someday choose to pursue higher education at Radford. The Blue Ridge region includes schools from Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Dickenson, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Montgomery, Pulaski, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise and Wythe counties as well as the cities of Bristol, Galax and Norton.
“It’s very exciting, and it’s great to be able to celebrate what is going on with our students in this region,” Lane said. We are so proud of the students who come here to Radford to compete. This is a big region, and to see the support these students get is wonderful.”