St. Rose Sixth Graders Win Regional Science Award; Now Aim for First Place Nationally

How will ocean researchers manage some day to explore the darkest recesses of ocean canyons while surviving the intense water pressure that currently prevents them from swimming that deep? By donning the special wetsuits made from unusual fish fibers that four St. Rose of Lima Academy students recently designed, of course.

Whether their newfangled product reaches the production phase remains to be seen, but the students’ special wetsuit design has secured them first place regionally in ExploraVision, the national science competition co-sponsored annually by Toshiba and the National Science Teachers Association.

“We couldn’t believe it when they called our names in school,” said Isabelle Perry, one of the four sixth graders who won. “We were all shocked – like it was a dream.”

Perry, along with Samantha Tush, Claire Galvin and Isabella Vitalo, all from Maplewood, researched and designed their project over several months in class, after school and at home together on weekends, with coaching from their science teacher, Christina Wage. Their design was judged the best from among 92 projects submitted by fourth, fifth and sixth graders in the competition’s Region 2, which includes the District of Columbia, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, as well as students of Armed Forces families stationed overseas.

Now, the four girls will spend several weeks fine-tuning their project, developing a web site for it and creating video content as they compete for the top prize against the winners from five other divisions across the United States and Canada. The other winners come from schools in California, Missouri, Michigan, Florida and New York. If the  St. Rose team wins first place nationally, they will be awarded a $10,000 U.S. Savings bond and an all-expense trip to Washington, D.C. with two family members.

To help in the final stage of the competition, the St. Rose team will receive a Toshiba notebook computer with wi-fi capability, a webcam and Web design software.

As part of the competition, now in its 20th year, students must research and explain a current scientific technology and then predict how that technology will evolve in 20 years. Past winners have envisioned technologies ranging from a self-cleaning toilet to a new method of treating diabetes.

The St. Rose sixth graders’ project is called “Poseidon’s Shield.” Samantha Tush said they tried to figure out what kind of material could withstand the pressure of the deepest portions of the ocean – canyons that extend seven miles down. “We thought steel would be strong, but it would be silly to make a wetsuit out of that,” she said. Then their research turned up information about the hatchetfish, which lives deep in the ocean under intense water pressure.

“Fish can withstand the water pressure because their bodies are as dense as the water,” Tush said. So they decided their wetsuit would be made of material that mimics the strength of the fibers that make up a hatchetfish’s scales.

Isabella Vitalo said another advantage of using the hatchetfish fibers was that the fish can glow – an asset for divers heading into the darkened depths.

“This project helped me learn how to work as part of a team,” said Claire Galvin. “We learned that you have to research a lot. You can’t just come up with answers that easily.”

Vitalo said the group also grew closer together in friendship.

As part of their work the girls recently visited Underwater Adventures, a scuba store in Millburn near St. Rose of Lima Academy. They learned about modern scuba equipment, and later this month will get to try scuba diving out for themselves at a local indoor pool.

In the same age group, a St. Rose team of fifth graders – Caroline Dufner of Short Hills, Katherine Hearden of Summit and Madison Detweiler and Kayleigh Wolff of Maplewood – won an honorable mention for their project, a mirror that acts like a small, hand-held MRI machine, scanning the body to identify future acne and wrinkles, as well as genes for diseases and high blood pressure.

“We were looking at ways to address problems in people’s daily lives,” Detweiler said. “We thought this mirror would make it easier than going to a doctor. Working on the project was fun. Everyone in the group cooperated and had new ideas to add.”

Wolff said the team was “kind of in shock” when they heard they had secured an honorable mention. “We definitely learned how to work with different people, and how to do a lot of research,” she said.

The Toshiba Corporation will visit St. Rose of Lima Academy later this month for a presentation ceremony.

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