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The Denver Metro Regional Science Fair was held this week. This year there were more than 600 entries from more 50 schools, up from approximately 550 students and 35 schools last year. The average quality of the projects I judged seemed higher than ever. This  bodes well for science education in Colorado.

In the many years I’ve been judging science fairs, trends have come and gone.  Topics kids select for projects are an excellent indicator of what is in vogue.  Just a few years ago, a lot of projects related to forensic science, no doubt in response to the popularity of the many CSI tv shows.  This year there was a decided decrease in those projects.  It’s difficult to say what has replaced forensics, but I definitely noticed a lot of projects – 20 – related to sports.

Every year I select one Junior division and one Senior division project for our Hutton Architecture Solar Energy Award.  The winners this year were clear cut choices. But I was disappointed there were fewer projects – only 14 – to choose from than in the last few years.  I wonder if this could indicate a diminishing level of student interest in sustainability.  Have economic concerns, or more trivial pursuits such as sports, pushed the environment to the back burner of our students minds? If the trend continues at next year’s science fair, then we’ll have the answer to our question.

One of my favorite projects at this year’s Science Fair was one that proposed to harvest useful energy from typical playground equipment.  Many pieces of playground equipment convert stored chemical energy in children’s bodies into kinetic energy.  The Science Fair project proposed to convert that kinetic energy into electricity through a simple turbine, much like a windmill.

The sample equipment identified was a typical merry go round.  This was indeed a good choice, as a merry go round concentrates all that energy on the axle buried in the ground, where a turbine could conceivably convert some of that energy into electricity.  Other playground devices would be harder to harvest energy from because there is no single point where energy is focused.  Swing sets are an obvious example.

Suppose all the kinetic energy of a playground could be captured?  How much energy is available?  An average, active, 6 year old consumes approximately  1,800 calories per day.  If that kid weighs 80 pounds and plays hard for 40 minutes, he may burn 200 calories.  An average suburban elementary school holds approximately 600students. So, the maximum playground energy, given one recess per child per day, would be 120,000 calories.  That equals 196 kWh.  A typical school in Colorado consumes .13 kWh per square foot per day, or 9,750 kWh for the entire building per day.

So, capturing playground energy could reduce school energy consumption by 2%.  That’s not a lot, but it’s a start, and it costs less than pv panels.  But, we’d have to think of another name for playgrounds.  We need something that sounds technical.  For the time being, I’d suggest Kinetic Energy Recovery Zones – KERV’s for short.  I can see that on our site plans already!

I’ve been a judge at the Denver Metro Regional Science and Engineering Fair for nearly a decade now.  It is an annual event held every February at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  There are two divisions – Junior and Senior – each with numerous categories, including Plant Sciences, Animal Sciences, and Physical Sciences.  Winners from the Fair advance to the State Science Fair, and winners there may advance to even more prestigious competitions.  It is entirely possible for a local student to win a full college scholarship based solely on their Science Fair success.

One intriguing aspect of being a judge is the opportunity to see what fascinates students, and how that evolves over time.  A few years ago, for example, I noticed a dramatic upsurge in projects related to forensic science.  This was a direct result of the popular and numerous CSI TV shows.  Currently, there is a strong trend toward projects related to environmental concerns.

Hutton Architecture Studio has been a Gold Sponsor of the Science Fair for many years.  This entails both judging a category or two, as well as subsidizing the cash awards given to winning projects.  We have proudly sponsored the Junior Division and Senior Division Engineering Awards.  Three years ago, we decided to add an entirely new special project award.  It is the Hutton Architecture Studio Solar Energy Award.  This may be awarded to a student or team from any of the categories in both the Junior and Senior Divisions.  We did this because we want to encourage local students to think about environmental issues and, in particular, the need to utilize renewable energy resources.

This year’s winning entries of the Hutton Architecture Studio Solar Energy Award were “Solar Panel Science” (Junior Division) and “Heat Transfer from Biomass” (Senior Division).