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Napa County students use scientific method to stand out at science fair

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Napa County Science Fair

Barbara Nemko, Napa County Office of Education superintendent, listens as Northwood Elementary School fifth-grader Maggie Moy, 10, explains her science project about lactase entitled 'Confessions of a Cereal Killer' during the Napa County Science Fair at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Napa Valley on Saturday. Moy won second place for her grade level for her use of the scientific method. 

Using research skills, the scientific method and maybe a little help from mom and dad, students from across the county put their skills to the test Saturday during the Napa County Science Fair.

More than 60 student projects were on display, including a portable phone charger made with two 9 volt batteries that won sixth-grader Isaiah Ruiz first place in engineering for his grade level.

Napa County Science Fair

Silverado Middle School sixth-grader Isaiah Ruiz shows off his medal after winning first place in engineering for his grade level at the Napa County Science Fair. 

The Silverado Middle School student representing the Boys & Girls Club knew he had placed when his name wasn’t called along with all the other students who were presented participation awards, but he didn’t think he was going to win. Then he heard third place called, then second.

“I’m first!” he thought, excitedly.

“I’ve never won anything like this before,” he said. “(It feels) very good.”

Ruiz came up with the idea for a portable charger while he and a friend searched online for project ideas. His phone was dying and his friend didn’t have a charger.

He identified his problem: “The problem that I’m having is that my phone keeps dying and I have to go to an outlet, but with a portable charger I could charge it wherever I’m at.”

Then he just had to make it. To do that, he used a USB car charger, positive and negative wires, copper wire, electrical tape, two 9 volt batteries and an Altoids container.

Napa County Science Fair

Barbara Nemko, Napa County Office of Education superintendent, awards sixth-grader Isaiah Ruiz with a medal during the Napa County Science Fair on Saturday. Ruiz won first place in engineering for his grade level for his homemade portable phone charger. 

His charger didn’t work at first. There wasn’t enough juice – the phone wouldn’t charge. That’s when he added a second 9 volt battery and connected the batteries using copper wire and electrical tape. Voila! The bar on his phone turned green – it was charging.

Ruiz said that he thinks his charger cost about half the price of a store bought one.

Aidan Machado and Julian Robin, seventh-graders at St. John the Baptist Catholic School, took first place in the engineering category for their grade level with their electric bike.

According to their research, an electric bicycle can be built by taking a regular bike and adding a motor, a linkage from the motor to a wheel or the pedals, batteries, a throttle and a motor controller, or “brain.”

“My purpose was to see if I could build an electric bike that could reach 20 miles-per-hour (without peddling), Machado said. After building the bike mostly from things they already had at their houses, the boys took it for a spin in the park. They fell short of their goal by 5 mph.

“We thought we could add a higher voltage battery … but didn’t want to destroy the tires,” Machado said. That is, at least not before the science fair. “We didn’t want to bring half a project.”

Napa County Science Fair

Silverado Middle School sixth-grader Isaiah Ruiz displays the mechanics of how his portable phone charger works during the Napa County Science Fair on Saturday. 

They’ll be testing the electric bike later, seeing if a higher voltage battery will give them more speed.

“It’s pretty simple and it works well,” he said. Although you can buy electric bikes, Machado said that it’s more fun to build it and much less expensive.

“They could cost thousands,” he said. Besides, he enjoys taking things apart, rebuilding them and tinkering, in general.

Sofia Leon Munoz and Keira O’Callahan, fifth-graders at Alta Heights Elementary School, took a different approach to their project.

Using a cardboard box, a sheet of plastic, an LED light, a skewer, some Sharpies and a wine cork, the girls were able to make a hologram.

To see it, the viewer hits a button, peeks through a slit in a box and whatever image is inside the box is projected up. The girls came up with the idea after seeing YouTube videos of something similar done using a smartphone. They wanted to figure out a way to make a hologram without one.

Napa County Science Fair

Alta Heights Elementary School fifth-graders Sofia Leon Munoz, 11, and Keira O’Callahan, 10, show how their homemade hologram works during the Napa County Science Fair on Saturday. The students won second place in engineering for their grade level. 

It’s similar to what happens on Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride, she said. There, the phantoms look like they’re turning with you as you move, she said, but really it’s just the way your brain is processing the image.

In the future, she said, maybe holograms could be used as substitutes if a musician is running late to a concert.

“We learned a lot,” Munoz said. Although both girls participated in the fair last year, neither won anything. They hoped that this year, by working together, they would do better – and they did. They won second place in engineering in their grade level.

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Maria Sestito is the former Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She now writes for the Register as a freelancer.

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