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Manlius Pebble Hill students can review the suggestions, make adjustments for entry in future fairs

Manlius Pebble Hill sixth-grader Billy Greene set out to prove that a robot made of Legos could successfully solve a Rubik’s cube puzzle.

Seventh-grader Kia Maier’s project used wooden skewers and gumdrops to create a wave machine to help determine if adding more weight increased wave frequency.

And eighth-grader Jenny Elder set out to see which oil would work the best to prevent cupcakes from sticking to the pan.

The three were among about 150 MPH students in grades five through eight participating in the school’s annual STEM Fair, but with a twist. Instead of a few judges awarding blue ribbons to top experiments, more than 50 professionals who work in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields served as volunteer evaluators of the student investigations. They didn’t judge the projects, they just offered their own insight and asked questions about what the students discovered through their work.

This week students will review the suggestions made by the evaluators and make adjustments if necessary, particularly if they plan to enter their project in to any local science fairs, organizers said.

The volunteers come from University Hospital, Arcadis, Novelis, Syracuse Research Corp., O’Brien & Gere, Cornell University, Syracuse University, Le Moyne College, Colgate, Bristol-Myers Squibb, National Grid and more.

The evaluators talked to the students about their projects, the process they followed, what they learned and what they’d still like to find out, said Sue Foster, MPH science department teacher and chair.

Having the professional evaluators really boosts the kids’ confidence, Foster said.

“It’s very affirming to have a powerful conversation with another adult about your work,” she said.

Evaluators were given several projects to review before the fair started so they’d be familiar with the investigations.

Kristin Angello, a senior engineer at Arcadia, reviewed five projects.

“I liked that the kids didn’t just pick an experiment they’d seen on the Internet and then set out to prove what they already knew,” she said. “Instead, they experimented and sometimes they disproved something they thought would work.”

For example, Hyemin Han, an eighth-grader, set out to prove how effective cleaners are against bacteria.

“I really thought Lysol would work the best, but what surprised me was vinegar was No. 1,” she said. “And I also showed that the ‘green’ products didn’t work as well at fighting bacteria, which surprised me.”

Sixth-grader Philip Lynch set out to show that a hamster could run on a wheel and make electricity. His investigation showed while that’s true, “the hamster would get tired or hungry” and the bulb it was powering would go out.

When Elder experimented on cooking oils, she observed how much cupcake was left in the pan when it was taken out. She concluded shortening worked the best and butter the worst.

Elder said she liked sharing her project with the evaluators “because it’s great to see what other people think of your experiments, and to hear what else they think you could try.”

Angello, of Arcadis, a engineering-consulting firm in DeWitt, said her role was to listen to what the kids had to say, then ask questions to further stimulate their thinking.

“I think when you’re able to explain your project to someone else it gives you a high level of understanding of what you’re doing,” she said.

At the same time, Angello said she hopes she was a role model for kids interested in engineering careers.

MPH’s Foster said talking with a cell biologist from Upstate, for example, helped the kids value their work.

“When they talk with other adults about their project, it nudges them forward and helps them think about things they might not otherwise,” she said.