Science that makes hair stand on end

One by one, students placed a hand on a silver orb mounted in a corner of the Mountain Avenue Elementary School science fair Friday. And lock by lock, their hair stretched upward and outward until they resembled mad scientists, much to the delight of their classmates.

“When you actually do it, you become engaged by it,” said event co-chair and molecular biologist Jackie Bodnar as she watched students interact with the Van de Graaff generator, which creates an electric field strong enough to stand hair on end.

It was one of several hands-on stations intermixed with 113 student projects at the event, launched three years ago by parents who wanted to supplement the school’s science curriculum. Six projects, all by sixth-graders, will advance to the Los Angeles County Fair in March, marking the first time the school has been represented at that level.

The fair is the work of parent volunteers — many of them scientists and engineers — who described it as a way to stimulate interest in the sciences at a young age.

“Everybody is certainly very invested in education,” said co-chair Saty Raghavachary, a software developer and trainer at DreamWorks Animation. “The academic scores in this school are extremely high. We feel that this is an extension of that. We have never had this kind of an outlet before. It just gets better every year.”

Projects featured everything from ant farms to fossils. One demonstrated how to start a fire using steel wool and a battery. Another tracked the decomposition of a Halloween jack-o’-lantern in a series of two dozen photos, the last depicting little more than a pile of mush.

“Bugs and mold help the pumpkin decompose,” concluded kindergartner Renee Limonadi. “It looks gross. The stem decomposes last.”

As students passed through the fair Friday, a hovercraft devised by Nathan Neville, 12, attracted the largest audience. Fashioned from a high-powered leaf blower, a disk-shaped piece of plywood, and perforated plastic sheeting, it was powerful enough to send the sixth-grader skating across the school’s central courtyard.

“[The plastic] traps the air in between the platform and the ground, creating a higher-pressure system on the inside,” Nathan said. “It lifts it up, so then it is floating on a small film of air. And with the air constantly escaping from the vent holes on the bottom, it creates low friction, which makes it able to move as if it was on ice.”

The fair is just one facet of parent investment in science instruction at the school. Last year, they claimed a rarely used room on campus and remade it into a science lab.

It has been well received by teachers who can find it difficult to marshal resources needed to conduct experiments, parents said.

“You never know, there could be a future Einstein here,” Bodnar said.

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