Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m., a group of high school students walked down the third floor of Julian Science and Mathematics Center and paused by a booth titled "How to straighten hair without using heat."
"I thought Caitlin's hair was naturally straight," one of the girls commented as she looked at the pictures and walked past.
The booth under observation was part of the Senior Division of the 2011 West Central Indiana Regional Science and Engineering Fair, now in its 58th year. According to Howard Brooks, Chair of the Physics and Astronomy Department and organizer of the fair, approximately 100 students compete in the regional fair each year between the Junior and Senior Divisions.
DePauw began hosting the fair in 1999, after Brooks attended a fair at Indiana State University for his son's project and one of the coordinators asked him if DePauw would be interested in hosting it in the future. Since then, DePauw has switched between hosting the regional and state fair.
During the regional competition this weekend, students spoke with five judges in the morning — mostly university students from DePauw and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, as well as some competitors' parents — and additional judges in the afternoon. The competition was divided between the Junior Division, fifth through eighth graders, and the Senior Division, high school students.
"The core of it is ‘Are they asking a good science question or a good engineering question?'" Brooks said about the judging criteria. "You kind of look at things like ‘Is it creative? Where did they get this idea?' I think there's a tendency for judges to like ideas that the students pick that are real practical."
Judges also consider the interest students show in their project as well as how well they present and explain their research.
The judges selected ten students from each division to compete at the state level in Bloomington on April 2, although one student cannot compete because of a scheduling conflict. From there, 20 to 27 students from the Senior Division only will move onto the International level, which will be held in Los Angeles the week of May 9. The Science Education Foundation of Indiana, Inc. will sponsor student and teacher travel and board for those participants who advance to the International competition.
On top of those selected to advance, a number of other awards are given out at the regional competition. These additional awards include honors from the Military, the American Meteorological Society, the American Psychological Association, and the National Society of Professional Engineers. Many of the awards given out include some sort of cash prize.
Students can also win awards that will allow them to travel to institutions where they can further learn about issues related to their projects. Greencastle High School sophomore Frederick Soster, whose father is a geosciences professor at DePauw, showcased his project, titled "What's in Big Walnut." It won an award that may allow him to attend a week-long program related to the environment at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Jessica Wright, a senior at Terre Haute Vigo High School, advanced to the state level for her project "Can tea be used as an effective ‘green' cleaner?" Wright has four years of experience in the competition, and has previously gone onto the International level.
"It's a good experience, and doing the research [is] not just for a science fair," Wright said. "It's a good learning process, and being able to say that you worked on research and presented a poster looks good to colleges too."
Wright hopes to go into biomedical engineering in college, and said her experience in the science fairs has better prepared her for her career ambitions.
"It's helped a lot because I've learned a lot about working in the lab and using equipment and statistically analyzing all the results, and you learn a lot by working in the lab," she said.
Brooks said he has enjoyed watching the development of students, like Wright, who return each year.
Wright worked on her project with a professor at Rose-Hulman, who had an interest in working on the topic previously.
Brooks said it is not uncommon for students to work with university professors on their projects. In the past, DePauw faculty members have worked with Greencastle students by guiding them through their projects or providing safe equipment.
Wright took her project seriously. While other boards on display showed construction paper pasted on poster board, Wright had her poster professionally printed and brought display lights to highlight her poster.
But the competition aspect of the fair wasn't as serious for all students. Greencastle sophomore Tyler Hudson brought his project, "Paintball Barrel Accuracy," to the fair after working on it in school. Presenting it at the regional fair earned him extra credit points.
"I'm here for the bonus points, and I don't really care if I move on or not," Hudson said.
Anna Nagy, a seventh grader from Otter Creek Middle School in Terre Haute, researched the quantity of waste produced by a dog depending on the brand of food it was fed. Her project, "The Full Scoop on Doggy Poop," attracted a large crowd of fellow middle school contestants, some of which came up to the board to take pictures with their cell phones.
"It just kind of captures the middle school humor that I think a lot of people don't get in their science fair projects," Nagy said.
Judge Boxin Tang, a DePauw junior, learned about the fair through one of Brooks's classes during his freshman year. Now in his third year of judging, Brooks has noticed an overall improvement among the projects since his first year.
"I would be really happy to see if the local students could actually come to this event...I would rather see other audiences rather than the parents and the judges," Tang said. "This is definitely a great chance for Greencastle development."