Science fair offers lessons about earth, space

April 5, 2011

By Laura Geggel

Vikram Chennai shows different fabric combinations in a science experiment to find out what would keep astronauts warmer. He won a best-in-classroom ribbon at Cascade Ridge Elementary School’s science fair. By Greg Farrar

For Cascade Ridge Elementary School’s annual science fair, fifth-grader Vikram Chennai wanted to know what materials would work best for an astronaut suit.

He knew space has extreme temperatures of hot and cold, so his parents drove him to an industrial fabric store where he bought GORE-TEX, Thinsulate, Mylar and a rubber material called Neoprene.

Chennai grabbed a needle and thread and sewed the fabrics together, using different combinations for each sample.

Reasoning that astronauts are at least 60 percent water, he filled small jars with water and heated them to a body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, he wrapped them in his mix-and-matched fabrics and — just like temperatures a spaceman might encounter — put the bottles and their coats in hot and cold environments.

Every 10 minutes, he recorded the rate of their temperature increase or decrease. The bottle that stayed closest to the temperature of 98.6 degrees would be best suited for an astronaut, he said.

The winning sample — Mylar on the outside to deflect cold and heat, Neoprene in the middle for insulation and Thinsulate on the inside for thermal insulation — had the slowest rate of increase when heated and the slowest rate of decline when chilled.

Chennai’s project won his class’ Best in Show award.

“It was absolutely fantastic,” fifth-grade teacher Scott Bishop said. “Vikram consistently finds ways to go above and beyond. He is very creative and an excellent problem solver.”

More than 360 students participated in Cascade Ridge’s science fair, a school record. While fourth- and fifth-grade students were required to create an experiment, younger students could also enter, and eight classes choose to enter projects together.

“The exhibits are phenomenal,” organizer Pete Wengert said.

Community volunteers also came to Cascade Ridge’s science fair: the Issaquah Valley Rock Club shared information about rocks, fossils and minerals; Amgen taught students about salmon DNA; and parents taught students about space and flight.

For his experiment, fifth-grader Sriram Parasurama wondered which tree — a conifer or a deciduous — would perspire more water.

“I found two trees, one with leaves and one without leaves, and I tied plastic bags around their branches for a week,” he said.

After seven days, Parasurama found that the pine tree branch had perspired 880 milliliters of water, while the tree with leaves perspired 2,940 milliliters, showing that leaves are like sweaty athletes, perspiring water more than their pine counterparts.

His classmate, fifth-grader Regan Rodman, studied another plant — the onion.

More specifically, she wondered the best way she could cut one without crying.

“When you cut onions, you break the cells, releasing their content,” Rodman wrote on her research poster. “The gasses released mix with the water in your tear ducts to form sulfuric acid, which burns, causing your eyes to sting or cry.”

Rodman tried a variety of independent variables. She cut an onion with various foods in her mouth — a sugar cube, a piece of bread and a lemon. None of these helped stymie her tears.

“I found out that cutting an onion under water is the best way,” she said.

Fifth-grader Mikey Wilson examined electromagnets. Which wire — a 30-gauge insulated with paint or a 20-gauge insulated with plastic — would pick up more paperclips when an electrical current was running through it?

He hypothesized the 20-gauge wire would pick up more paper clips, because it had thicker insulation. His experiment supported his claim.

“If you are trying to make an electrical magnet, then you should get a higher gauge and a more insulated wire,” he said.

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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