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7 Discoveries That Started as School Assignments

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Some schoolwork is worth more than a good grade. The young students behind these assignments earned recognition from scientists, paleontologists, and mathematicians in the real world. Here are seven class projects where the effects were felt far beyond the classroom.

1. AN INSECTICIDE THAT’S NONTOXIC TO HUMANS

For a middle school science project, Simon Kaschock-Marenda discovered that a sweetener found in most grocery stores doubles as a nontoxic insecticide. With help from his dad, Drexel University biology professor Daniel Marenda, Simon gave artificial sweeteners to fruit flies raised in their home. Of all the groups they studied, the flies fed Truvia had the shortest lifespan (5.8 days compared to 38 to 51 days). Daniel realized the significance of their findings and conducted further experiments at his work lab. Along with his colleagues, he identified the ingredient responsible—erythritol—and published the work in the journal PLOS ONE. The chemical compound won’t be replacing all synthetic pesticides anytime soon, but for small-scale applications it could be a safer alternative.

2. A NEW WAY TO EXTEND THE LIFE OF HEARING AID BATTERIES

Minnesota teenager Ethan Manuell didn’t expect to make a major medical breakthrough when he was asked to make a science fair project. As he told USA Today, his main concern was getting a good grade. After receiving the assignment from his eighth grade science teacher, Mrs. Omland, Manuell started tinkering. Using materials he had at home—including old battery-operated toy bugs and the batteries from his hearing aid—he discovered a way to extend the lifespan of zinc hearing aid batteries by 85 percent.

Some hearing aid battery packages instruct users to remove the plastic tab on the back of the battery and let it sit for one minute. Manuell further tested this suggestion, allowing the tab-less batteries to sit for various amounts of time before testing their longevity in his vibrating toy bugs. He found that five minutes was the golden length of time needed to achieve maximum results.

The information is shared in doctor’s offices today. By using Manuell’s trick, hearing aid wearers can save an average of $70 a year on batteries.

3. INSIGHT INTO HOW BUMBLEBEES SELECT FLOWERS

A group of 8- to 10-year-olds from Blackawton Primary School in Blackawton, England may qualify as the youngest authors of a published scientific journal. The students conducted their research on the flower selection habits of bees in a local churchyard. The results, which they wrote up themselves, appeared in the respected Royal Society journal Biology Letters in 2010.

With their teacher, Dave Strudwick, and neuroscientist Dr. Beau Lotto as their mentors, the kids set up a color-coded, plexiglass box for bees to navigate. The puzzle contained two types of artificial flowers: one filled with sugar water and one with salt water. They discovered that “bumblebees can use a combination of color and spatial relationships in deciding which color of flower to forage from.” The findings suggest that bumblebees possess a more advanced awareness of their surroundings than some scientists give them credit for. Another takeaway from the study? “We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before,” the authors wrote.

4. THE DISCOVERY OF A BABY DINOSAUR FOSSIL

Kevin Terris couldn’t have asked for better luck during a field trip he took as a 17-year-old. While scanning the ground for fossils at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, the student spotted a baby dinosaur skull poking out of the dirt. Once the rest of the remains were uncovered, paleontologists concluded they belonged to the smallest and youngest duck-billed Parasaurolophus dinosaur ever recorded. They nicknamed the specimen “Joe.”

Terris and his classmates visited the dig site as part of a paleontology program at their California high school. The field had already been surveyed by experts when the students arrived, which makes the discovery even more impressive. After receiving his high school diploma, Terris went on to study geology in college. Joe, meanwhile, is on display at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California, after providing important insight into the development of duck-billed dinosaurs.

5. A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF ANEMONE BIOLOGY

Getting out of the classroom and into nature led to a major discovery by middle school students at the Dedham School in Maine. Under the guidance of Vanderbilt University scientists via Skype, the students conducted an experiment on metridium (a type of sea anemone) they collected from the harbor. Their research revealed the presence of sulfilimine bonds in the creature’s structure, an observation that had never been made before.

While the bond is found in complex animals like mammals, it’s less common in simpler organisms. The students hypothesized that the quality is what prevents some creatures from regrowing limbs, while other animals like starfish are able to. “You see lots of war heroes that come back and they have a severed arm or a severed leg and so we can’t grow it back and we think maybe this has to do with that our cells are too bonded together: Maybe we need to loosen it up,” Dedham student Braedan Ward told WABI. Whether or not their hunch is proven correct, it's clear the budding scientists are asking the right questions.

6. AN ALTERNATIVE TO PASCAL’S TRIANGLE

When solving binomial expansions for his high school math class in 2013, sophomore Brock Brown could have used Pascal’s triangle like the rest of his classmates. Instead, he invented a brand-new theorem that allowed him to get homework done faster. His method eventually caught the attention of Ben Moulton, the math professor teaching Brock’s mother at Utah Valley University at the time. Moulton described the formula, now known as “Brock’s Theorem,” as an “elegant and simple” alternative to more common binomial theorems. The professor offered to develop a proof for Brock and later submitted it to the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges. Moulton and Brown presented their work at an Anaheim, California math conference in 2013.

7. A POTENTIAL CANCER TREATMENT

In Dr. Robert Pergolizzi’s class at Bergen's Science and Technology Magnet School in New Jersey, students are given a lot of freedom. "There are no tests in this class, no homework," Pergolizzi told New Jersey News 12. Their only assignment is developing an original research project. Freshman student Joshua Meier took that prompt and ended up discovering a possible treatment for cancer.

Meier began his research by looking into the causes of rapid aging in artificially-generated stem cells. He discovered that synthetic stem cells are missing a third of their DNA, which makes them age faster. By controlling mitochondrial DNA deletion levels, he was able to slow the aging process.

As a junior, Meier used his findings to come up with a potential cancer treatment. Instead of slowing aging in stem cells, he realized he could reverse the process to expedite aging in cancer cells and stop them from growing. The research earned him second place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

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Lists
12 Vintage School Supplies You Can Still Buy

If you're at all like me, the back to school season makes you incredibly nostalgic. Not for actually going back to school, of course, but for all the awesome school supplies you'd buy before hitting class. Thankfully, you can relive your elementary school glory days—and spice up your boring office—by buying these vintage back-to-school staples.

1. TRAPPER KEEPERS

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Trapper Keeper was more than just a school supply—it was a status symbol. The unchallenged MVP of school supplies has recently made a comeback: You can buy regular binders, outfit your tablet with a Trapper Keeper-inspired cover, or buy a vintage model on ebay.

2. LISA FRANK GOODIES

Back in the day, girls had to have anything and everything Lisa Frank: Stickers, folders, notebooks, and, yes, Trapper Keepers. Frank doesn’t venture out in public anymore, but you can still buy her stuff, from stickers to calendars to pens, on Amazon, and Lisa Frank clothing from RageOn!.

3. YIKES PENCILS

These pencils were so much better that your typical No. 2: They had personality, coming in many different shapes and patterns. As the 1993 commercial above points out, “you can’t look sharp with dull pencils.” They’re not made anymore (though some dedicated fans have petitioned to bring them back), but you can still find Yikes pencils on eBay. They’re sure to be conversation starters around the office.

4. ERASERMATE PENS

It took Paper Mate more than a decade to develop the erasable ink used in Erasermate pens, which hit the U.S. market in 1979. The thrill of being able to write in pen and erase it if you made a mistake was undeniable when you were a kid. (It hardly mattered that most of the time there was some ink left behind even after you’d erased.) These days, of course, we hardly write notes—but when we do, they’re almost illegible. So you can whip these out, erase what you’ve written, and make your handwriting slightly more decipherable.

5. MR. SKETCH SCENTED MARKERS

These markers, which debuted in the mid-1960s, were on every kid’s back-to-school wish list. And not just because they were good for coloring: Sniffing these scented markers was a favorite activity—and every kid had their favorite marker, too. (Mine was raspberry.) Though these markers were off the market for a while, they’ve recently been reintroduced. Pick some up and use them to give your memos a little something extra.

6. GELLY ROLL PENS

The Sakura Color Products released their Ballsign pens, the first pens to use gel ink, in Japan in 1984. When they brought the pens to the U.S. in 1989, the company changed its product’s name to Gelly Roll, and the pens became a staple on mid-’90s back-to-school lists.

The company began trying to create a gel ink formula that they could use in early 1980s. “In the beginning, we failed many times,” Shigeyasu Inoue, an original member of the team, recounts on the Sakura website. “Each time we developed a new prototype, a whole new set of problems would arise. We spent endless hours studying each problem, resolving them one-by-one. There were many ideas—many led to dead-ends. Others had merit, but could only be tried once we resolved other issues. It was a difficult process."

The team got close but still needed one ingredient to crack the formula; they tried everything from anything with the consistency of jelly—including agar, grated yam, and egg whites—before stumbling upon the food additive xanthan gum in a trade journal. They applied for a patent on the ink in 1982, then spent two years developing a pen that could be used with it. Now you can get them all, from classic to Moonlight to metallic and beyond, right here.

7. PENCIL GRIPS

These grips were supposed to adjust a child’s grasp so he or she wrote the right way—or at least make all those hours pressing a pencil to paper more bearable. But they came in so many cool shapes and colors that they made plain old pencils a little more fun. You can get ergonomic grips here.

8. MULTI-COLOR PENS

Why use a boring black or blue pen when you could have a pen that had four or more colors? These pens were prone to jamming back in the day, but current models—which we use here at Mental Floss—work much more smoothly.

9. PENCIL TOPPERS

Why did many elementary school girls choose to stick tiny nude trolls on top of their pencils? Who knows, but you can still get them on Amazon. If you’re not into trolls, there are plenty of other fun pencil toppers, too, like these ones that look like wild animals or these crazy, Koosh-like balls!

10. POP-A-POINT PENCILS

Kids never had to sharpen these pencils: When they wore the point down to the nub, they simply pulled it out and inserted it into the back of the pencil, which pushed a new point forward. The new points were super sharpalmost sharp enough to stab yourself! You could clear ones, covered in patterns, or even scented, and they’re available on Amazon right now.

11. MINI ERASERS

How useful were these super small erasers? I can’t remember, but I do remember that I could never resist buying them at the school store. Now you can get 500 for under $12 on Amazon.

12. PENCIL BOXES

Elementary school kids stored all of their many pens and pencils in the iconic Spacemaker pencil box, which had a distinctive bumped top. Unfortunately, they’re not made anymore (although you can find some on eBay and Etsy), but you can still find plenty of colorful options to cover with Lisa Frank stickers that will do the job just fine.

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science
Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello
©AMNH

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

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