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Lane Tech's Science Fair Tests Theories of Aspiring Scientists

By Patty Wetli | December 12, 2012 2:53pm | Updated on December 12, 2012 4:51pm

ROSCOE VILLAGE — Does the orientation of a solar panel affect its ability to generate energy?

Yes, according to Patti Sporschill, a 17-year-old who was one of 182 sophomores and juniors participating in Lane Tech College Prep High School's annual Science Fair Tuesday. The optimum tilt for a panel in Chicago in the winter, Sporschill said, is at 55 degrees that faces south.

All the students at the fair are enrolled in the school's Alpha Honors STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program.

Projects ran the gamut from "The Effect of Sunlight on Crickets" to "Making a Laser-Guided Robot."

Alison Krakowski, who teaches freshman biology at Lane Tech, 2501 W. Addison St., and helped coordinate the fair, estimated that 80 percent of the students will go on to study science in college.

"I think they gain every skill that they need" for a career in science, she said, explaining the goal of the fair.

Junior Taylor Stoffle, who's interested in environmental issues, partnered with a professor at Northeastern Illinois University for her study of nitrate concentration in soil receiving synthetic versus organic fertilizer. (Plants grew better sans fertilizer.)

The 17-year-old, currently enrolled in a forensics class, was thrilled to gain access to university lab equipment including a drying oven and centrifuge.

"The professor I had was really, really helpful," Stoffle said.

Students are judged not only on the quality of their research but their ability to present their material. Equally important, added Krakowski, "they're getting to know what they like."

Sophomore Taylor Scott wants to be a forensic anthropologist, which explains why she ditched her freshman year project — "The Effect of Rock Salt on Seed Germination" — in favor of one that studied the likelihood of breaking a bone during a car accident. For the record, seatbelts tend to cause broken ribs and air bags break facial bones.

"Next year, I'm going to focus on alcohol and texting," said the 15-year-old.

It's common for students to build on the previous year's subject, increasing the complexity of their work as they go. "They learn more and more," Krakowski said.

Isabel Hernandez has been testing organic versus non-organic foods — as a freshman she studied fruit, this year she investigated milk — asking whether organic products are healthier and worth the extra money.

Her research showed that organic milk contained more E.coli bacteria, which can wreak all kinds of digestive havoc. Non-organic milk is healthier, concluded the 16-year-old sophomore.

"What I like is discovering new things," said Hernandez, who plans to become a chemical engineer. "I like making people know more about what they consume."

Each project was judged three times, with evaluations conducted by Lane Tech's faculty, as well as nearly 100 volunteers from the community.

Andrew Minor, who teaches statistics and advanced algebra at Lane, focused on the students' appropriate use of scientific evidence.

"It's easy to say, 'My conclusion works.' Data in reality comes out in this gray area," he said. Minor would much prefer to hear, "I tried this and it didn't work. Maybe we run further tests."

Others were impressed by the creativity on display.

"Some topics, I think, are very unique," said Ekta Patel, who's served as a judge for the past three years. Her family awards $250 to the top student in memory of her brother, Ankur Modi, a 1999 Lane Tech grad who passed away in 2009.

"Green tea, video games. These are relevant topics to the younger generation," she said. "It's interesting to see how they make an experiment out of that."

Top honors at the fair went to: Kornelia Skowron, a junior whose project category was in environmental science; Paul Pagos, sophomore, microbiology; and Marcelina Puc, sophomore, microbiology. They, along with the remainder of the top 10 finishers, will present their projects at a citywide fair, scheduled for March at the Museum of Science and Industry.