March 8, 2014 Updated: March 8, 2014 at 10:42 pm
Southern Colorado fires and floods may have destroyed hundreds of homes and affected thousands of lives, but they also inspired local student projects designed to better understand the disasters' impact and develop strategies for prevention.
Those were some of the 234 projects presented at this year's Pikes Peak Regional Science Fair, held Saturday in Berger Hall at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
More than 200 students representing 25 schools showcased their work. About 80 percent of the projects were created by middle schoolers.
"I live my life vicariously through them," said Dean Muir, the awards chair who has been involved with the fair for nine years.
"The U.S. is starting to lack in these areas," said the software engineer and trainer at Lockheed Martin about fields related to science, technology, engineering and math.
"They are likely going to be our scientists of the future," said Carol Bach, a judge who sits on the fair's board.
As opposed to science events such as olympiads, this science fair includes individual students or teams doing "their own, authentic scientific investigation," Bach said.
Judges look for good use of the scientific method, evidence that students planned and initiated projects on their own and tested their hypothesis at least three times, she said.
"You get recognized for athletics. You get recognized for scholarship. We would like our budding scientists to get recognized as well," Bach said.
This year's event included the largest high school contingent in about five years, said fair director Georgia Matteson. She described 75 percent of the senior projects as "excellent" or "college work."
"Even at the sixth-grade level," student projects are becoming "much more complicated" and "sophisticated," Matteson said, tackling issues of pollution, health and cancer.
Eric Frank and Durham Clark, 16-year-old sophomores at Edison High School, modeled an alternative to sandbags for flood prevention in residential areas. They made miniature water barriers out of two 4-inch squares of scrap metal, hinged together with rubber.
One project measured the water capacity of soils from the Waldo Canyon burn area near Flying W Ranch, gathered a year after the fire.
"The fire soil was actually able to hold more water," said project creator Derek Russell, 14, a freshman at Sand Creek High School.
To power lights, a Rampart High School team put together a vertical-axis wind turbine - a device channeling winds from nearly all directions. Simulating winds about 45 miles per hour for 60 seconds, the turbine generated enough energy to power an LED light for 30 minutes, said group member Phillip Zhang.
Zhang cited "way too much energy waste in government buildings" and the need for a "clean source of energy" as justification for the group's project.
The group of all 17-year-old juniors, which includes Matthew Correia and William Poburka, hopes to make a smaller version of the 22-inch turbine hub to place on streetlights, potentially powering the more than 24,000 street lights in Colorado Springs, which cost $3.2 million annually to operate.
Major sponsors included the Russell Grinnell Memorial Trust, Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, Rocky Mountain chapter of Northrop Grumman Corporation and UCCS.
The 105 awards range from $15 to $100. First place winners in every category will go to the state science fair next month, totaling 35 students, Matteson said.
Three projects with four students, including a team project, will go to the international science fair in May, which will be held in Los Angeles.