The Science of Sustainability

Science Fair for the Rest of Us

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These are just some of the beautiful murals adorn the outside of the labs at Schmahl Science headquarters.

Let’s say you’re a student who wants to do a biology experiment for a science fair. Maybe you want to figure out how a certain cancer works or engineer a drought-resistant plant or any other sort of higher level experiment. How in the world do you get started and then do the necessary experiments?

If you know a biologist, then you can get them to help you. Unfortunately most folks don’t know any scientists let alone biologists. What interested people usually have to do is start cold-calling institutions and universities, hoping to find someone willing to help. This is rarely successful.

But if you’re in the South Bay, there is another possibility – Schmahl Science. For around $40/hour, you can do your experiment with the help of a mentor in the lab facilities at Schmahl Science headquarters.

The price is a bargain by science standards but still ain’t cheap. For example, a cancer project can end up costing upwards of $3000! There are scholarships available and there is a sliding scale based on family income, but it will still definitely cost you. However, if you’re interested in doing a top notch science fair project and learning more about science as a career, you can’t beat it.

I recently had the chance to take a tour of the facilities and chat with the executive director, Belinda Schmahl. My first impression of the place was that it was a bit ramshackle. It seemed to have been cobbled together from various spare parts into a Frankenstein sort of creation. This is because it was.

They are able to keep prices so low (and really, they are low) by using other people’s castoffs in a location that is a bit off the beaten track. What it lacks in finish, though, it more than makes up for in personnel.

I was incredibly impressed with the mentors I spoke with. They were knowledgeable and very excited about their students’ projects. And I can see why.

One student I saw there was working on a biochemical experiment to test how well various sunscreens actually protect people from harmful ultraviolet light. One mentor told me about a successful experiment a student had done to generate electricity from bay mudflats. Another mentor told me about a student’s project that was exploring how houseflies were able to fly. Still another told me about a student’s project on the effects of the herbicide RoundUp on certain bacteria rice needs to grow. And so on.

Of the 100 students mentored for the Synopsys science fair last year, 78 received some sort of award. This gives you some idea as to the quality of the work and the guidance each student receives.

These are incredibly interesting and important experiments that the students would not be able to do on their own. What a great service this organization provides for the community. I hope one day it can be cloned over and over again so more students can experience the thrill and excitement of science.

More information on the program

Recent winners of the Synopsys Science Fair. Wow.

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Category: Biology

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Kishore Hari

    sciencebuddies.org is also a great local resource for project ideas. They do have programs to help match mentors with projects as well.

  • http://organic-living-blog.com/ Linda

    Nice walls, very colorful, they make me happy.