A rite of passage: DeKalb students showcase their projects at science fair

School districts hope even those who don’t become scientists will learn to be problem solvers
Chamblee High School senior Deeksha Khanna stands near her display on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, during the DeKalb County School District Science Fair in Stone Mountain. (Jason Allen for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jason Allen

Credit: Jason Allen

Chamblee High School senior Deeksha Khanna stands near her display on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, during the DeKalb County School District Science Fair in Stone Mountain. (Jason Allen for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Three rows of trophies glinted brilliantly on the stage at the DeKalb County Regional Science and Engineering Fair, their round forms like bottles — the kind with genies inside who could make students’ wishes come true.

Larger trophies loomed at one end of the table. They were designated for the DeKalb County students who would go on to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles in May. They were the source of Deeksha Khanna’s angst.

The Chamblee High School senior spent close to six months on her project: a study of how genetics impact seizure risk for people with Fragile X Syndrome, a rare intellectual disability. She was about to find out whether it was enough.

As Deeksha panicked in the last row of the auditorium, closer to the stage sat Tatiana Bonner. It was the Champion Middle School seventh grader’s first time at the district fair — her first time doing any type of science fair project. She felt some of Deeksha’s pressure earlier in the day, before she talked to the judges about her project that examined the best way to grow plants.

For thousands of past and present students, completing a science fair project is a rite of passage, like getting your driver’s license or going to the prom.

Go ahead. Ask your partner, friends or your co-workers if they remember their own science fair project. See if they remember the diligent act of forming a hypothesis, collecting and analyzing data and summing it all up on a trifold board.

There were more than 100 projects represented at the DeKalb County science fair this year. (Cassidy Alexander/Cassidy.Alexander@ajc.com)

Credit: Cassidy Alexander

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Credit: Cassidy Alexander

In recent years, though, there’s been criticism of the science fair. Some parents get too involved in their child’s project and make it a miserable experience for everyone, including themselves. The rich kids have more resources to do bigger projects.

In DeKalb, science scores are improving but tend to lag behind state averages. Educators use summer and extracurricular programs to get kids excited about the subject. The science fair is still a way to help students find their niche — the goal is that even those who don’t become scientists will learn to be problem solvers.

“If you ask any adult now, ‘Hey, what do you remember about school?,’ nine times out of 10, the science project that they had to do comes up,” said Kassidy Moore, one of the district’s science coordinators.

Deeksha’s final shot

The science fair is the Super Bowl for students like Deeksha. It’s the 17-year-old’s last year in high school and her last chance to go to the International Science and Engineering Fair, to be judged against her peers in the upper echelons of K-12 scientific achievement.

Deeksha knows what’s at stake. Her project last school year studied the genetic markers for Alzheimer’s disease, and took her to the international fair in Dallas, Texas. She met students who cared about science like she does; female students who overcame a sense of intimidation in participating in male-dominated activities; researchers from around the world who continue to inspire her. “I have no words to describe it,” she said.

This time, she wanted to do more. She often spent eight hours a day in July, August and September in a lab at Emory University, which allowed her to do her research there. Deeksha bred more than 2,500 fruit flies and observed seizure occurrences. And once that was done and the school year had started, she spent hours on her computer, analyzing the data she had collected and reviewing existing research about drug remedies.

“I would find myself doing this in class often,” she admitted. “More than I should have.”

But it was in pursuit of a new goal: Receive a grand award at ISEF, an honor reserved for the best projects from around the world. She knows how competitive it can be to qualify and compete at that level: “There’s never any guarantee for anyone.”

‘She’s achieved something bigger than me’

Tatiana’s teacher told her to pick a project based on her interests. She likes to tend a garden with her family and wonders what environmental changes and natural disasters could mean for our food supply — so she tried to find a fix. “My project was a way that people could make sure they had what they need for survival.”

She planted bean and lettuce seeds, and put them in different settings to test how they handled changes in lighting and temperature. She came home from school every day for about a month and checked on them — she measured them, took the temperature of the soil and wrote notes in a composition notebook.

Champion Middle School student Tatiana Bonner talks about her science fair exhibit at Champion Middle School, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in Stone Mountain. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz

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Credit: Jason Getz

It made her mom, Jennifer Brown, think about her own science fair projects about the solar system and about pandas. “It was exciting for me way back then,” she said. Tatiana going to the district fair was a big deal for the family: “She’s achieved something bigger than me.”

Tatiana, 13, has always been studious, her mom said. A hard worker. She had practiced her spiel with her teacher, her classmates and her family. She was nervous going into the district fair, but felt ready to face the judges.

A wide range of projects

The science fair as we know it dates back nearly 100 years in the United States. The American Institute of the City of New York claims credit for hosting the first Children’s Fair in New York in 1928. Science clubs and fairs expanded from that point on. And in 1950, the Science Service and Science Clubs of America held the first National Science Fair in Philadelphia.

Now, schools across the country host fairs for students, who can go on to regional, state, national and international competitions. For middle school students like Tatiana, the projects are often mandatory and coupled with lessons about the scientific method.

Whether participation in science fairs improves academic achievement is up for debate. One 2003 study found that participating in science fairs didn’t increase students’ engagement or understanding of the subject. But a 2020 study found science fair participation does increase students’ interest in science, as long as they volunteered for the fair themselves.

“We believe it is a critically important part of a student’s education, to have a question about the world around you and be empowered to seek answers and find solutions,” said Michele Glidden, the chief program officer at the Society for Science, which hosts the international fair.

The projects at the DeKalb fair offer a glimpse into students’ interests, their fears, their dreams. After the pandemic, educators noticed more projects about disease transmission and vaccines. One of this year’s winning teams at the DeKalb fair studied why there’s a lack of trust in the COVID-19 vaccine in the African American community. Deeksha wants to study health or biomedical computation in college, so she began teaching herself through the fairs. Tatiana is interested in becoming a lawyer who specializes in environmental law, so she studied plants.

Some of the projects had titles with words the average person couldn’t pronounce, and diagrams that could be found in any scientific journal. At the Northwest Regional Science and Engineering Fair, which was held the same weekend as DeKalb’s fair, the winning projects from Cherokee County students included “The Effects of Rottlerin on Escherichia coli Conjugation.” Others in DeKalb sought answers to the type of questions many of us let pass us by: Which hair dye colors fade the fastest? Which stores have the cleanest shopping carts?

Judgment day

There were 128 projects represented at the DeKalb science fair this year. Students dressed in business casual, or the occasional white lab coat, set up their trifold boards, laid out their field notes and tried not to fidget too much. Others played hangman while they waited to talk to judges.

Tatiana softly but confidently walked judges through what she learned, and filed away advice about how to improve next year.

Her project didn’t make it on to the state level. A little disappointing, she said — but honestly, it’s OK with her.

“I’m just glad everything’s over and it’s no more stress,” Tatiana said afterward. She’s already thinking about how she’ll expand on her project in the future: “Next year, I’m going to have a better chance of winning.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Deeksha tracked the teams of judges. She smoothed her hands down the front of her black business dress, and shuffled the 4-inch binder and other research materials in front of her board — again.

“I’m pretty nervous, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “I really want to make it to L.A. this year.”

The room was nearly emptied of students and judges when someone finally came to review her board. Deeksha launched into a well-practiced explanation of her work. She appeared to relax as she spoke. The weeks in the lab, the late night research sessions, all led to this. She talked about what she knew best.

The nerves were back a few hours later as Deeksha waited to find out if she’d make it to L.A. She chewed a piece of gum and twisted a piece of hair between her fingers. Maybe she was going to the international fair, after all, she dared to hope.

Her hypothesis was proven correct.

“We’re sending two teams to compete at the International Science and Engineering Fair,” announced Jacqueline Stephens, a science coordinator in DeKalb.

Deeksha made her way to the stage to rounds of applause, looking relieved for the first time all day.

Deeksha Khanna is headed to the international science fair in Los Angeles in May. (Jason Allen for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jason Allen

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Credit: Jason Allen

Three other students from her school, Jack Bolte, Aiden Lee and Matthew Wang, would be joining her with their project studying methane gas. All four of the teenagers wore similar looks on their faces: dumbstruck, giddy. The international fair begins the same day as their high school graduation ceremony.

For Deeksha, or her three classmates, it could be a Hollywood ending to their high school careers.


You never forget your science fair project

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked some notable metro Atlanta residents to reminisce about their memorable science fair projects. Here are some of their responses in their own words. Some of the responses were edited for length.

Georgia State University President M. Brian Blake

Georgia State University President M. Brian Blake speaks at Georgia State University College of Arts and Sciences’ afternoon bachelor’s graduation ceremony in Atlanta on Thursday, May 4, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Living in Savannah, near Union Camp, in sixth grade inspired me to create a science project to explore papermaking. I created sheets of paper by hand from wood pulp and other recycled paper to show different variations and also quality of print and color. I was proud to represent my school and southern region in Atlanta, taking 3rd place at the statewide competition.

Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks during the celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of Mayor Maynard Jackson at the Atlanta City Hall Atrium, Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

My all-time favorite was in sixth grade at Ralph Bunche Middle School, making chocolate chip cookies and using different food dyes to determine if people thought they tasted differently. I learned the power of suggestion is real!

Kim Greene, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Georgia Power

Georgia Power CEO Kim Greene speaks at a ceremony at Plant Vogtle, in Burke County near Waynesboro, on Monday, July 31, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The science fair at Halls Elementary School in Knoxville, Tennessee probably marked the beginning of my career in energy! I was in the fifth grade and, inspired by my father’s work at (Tennessee Valley Authority), I focused on solar energy. I built a model home and was able to prove the value of energy design by placing windows and doors facing the appropriate direction to benefit from the sun’s rays. I carry the lessons from that science fair — and many classes thereafter — and apply them in my work at Georgia Power.

Dr. Deb Houry, chief medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Dr. Deb Houry is the chief medical officer of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Courtesy of CDC)

Credit: Courtesy Photo

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Credit: Courtesy Photo

One of my science fair projects was looking at the length of time and strength of light from ultraviolet tanning beds and how this would impact bacterial growth and mutations. I looked specifically at Serratia, a bacteria that would grow red, and when exposed to ultraviolet light, would mutate and grow white cultures. I would leave cheerleading practice with my duffel bag containing agar plates from school, drive to the tanning salon, take the plates out of my duffel bag and put the agar plates (which were not opened) on the tanning bed. It was pretty neat to see that the higher intensity light quickly mutated these bacteria when compared to controls. My advice for those participating in a science fair would be to make it fun and truly go in with an open mind. And if there’s something you are interested in or have been thinking about, find a way to study it. For me, it was wondering whether tanning beds were safe. You never know what impact or findings you will have.

Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker

Atlanta inventor Lonnie Johnson, the creator of the Super Soaker, stands next to a sputtering system machine in his lab in downtown Atlanta. AJC FILE PHOTO.

Credit: AJC File Photo

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Credit: AJC File Photo

I was a member of my high school science and engineering club and decided I wanted to build a robot — not just any robot, but a remote controlled one. It took me a year to finish. I missed all of the school science fairs except the one that I was most excited about: The Engineering Technical Society science fair at the University of Alabama. At the competition, my robot, Linex, was set up on a table and the judges came around interviewing students and asking questions. This was in the 60′s and the year prior, the governor had stood in front of the door of the school saying Black students would not be allowed to come to that school. Despite that, Linex won first place at the very university where the governor had blocked the door. Not only was Linex an engineering victory, but he was a moral victory as well! Linex became a famous robot and appeared in school assemblies where I demonstrated him my to the entire school and was even on television, which was a big deal back then! My experience inspired me to continue creating and inventing, which I still am doing 60 years later.

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