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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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Here Are the Colleges In Each State With the Best Job Placement Rates
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In a tough economic climate, kids trying to figure out where to go to college might be more concerned with their future job prospects than the on-campus party scene. This graphic from the career search site Zippia, spotted by Thrillist, provides a surprising look at the universities that boast the highest post-graduation job placement rates in each state.

Zippia looked at job placement ratings from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), a collection of surveys from the National Center for Education Statistics that any college or university that gets federal funding has to complete. (That includes private universities.) The company ranked universities based on their job placement ratings for students 10 years after graduation.

Here's what the results look like across all 50 states:

A yellow map of the U.S. labeled with the college that boasts the highest job placement rate in each state
Zippia

Some of the institutions on the list may be colleges you’ve never heard of. While prestigious universities like Vanderbilt University in Tennessee might be familiar, other entries are more obscure. The highest job placement rate for a college in Massachusetts isn’t from Harvard—it’s Endicott College, a school near Salem with about 2500 undergraduates.

These are the 10 colleges with the highest job placement rates across all 50 states, according to Zippia’s analysis. Each school has a job placement rate of more than 95 percent 10 years after graduation.

1. Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania
2. Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island
3. Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio
4. Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon
5. Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York
6. University of Sioux Falls in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
7. University of Wisconsin – Platteville in Platteville, Wisconsin
8. Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts
9. Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska
10. Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut

That said, it's not entirely clear what kind of employment is covered by this data. It's possible that some of the graduates included aren't working in their desired field 10 years on or are otherwise underemployed but still working full time. The jobs these graduates have may have nothing to do with their major or what they studied in school. And since Zippia looked at data from people who graduated 10 years ago, that means the company likely looked at 2008 graduates, who left college at the height of the recession and may not have had a lot of great job options, potentially skewing the data toward very specialized schools, like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (the top choice in both Arizona and Florida).

The full list is below.

A list of the top colleges for job placement in each state
Zippia

[h/t Thrillist]

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School Buses May Soon Come with Seat Belts
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The days of school bus passengers riding unencumbered by seat belts may soon be over. This week, the federal National Transportation Safety Board made a recommendation to state agencies that new, larger buses should come equipped with lap and shoulder belts, as well as automatic emergency braking and anti-collision systems.

Traditionally, most large school buses have allowed students to ride without being secured in their seats. That’s because the buses are designed to surround passengers with shock-absorbing, high-backed seats spaced closely together, an approach referred to as "compartmentalization." In an accident, kids would be insulated in an egg-carton type of environment and prevented from hitting a dashboard or window. For smaller buses—usually defined as weighing 10,000 pounds or less—belts are standard.

The Safety Board’s conclusion comes at a time when recent bus crashes—including one with two fatalities that took place in New Jersey just last week—have reopened discussion as to whether larger buses need belts. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration maintains that the compartmentalization of larger buses provides adequate safety, while the American Academy of Pediatrics argues that belts should be mandatory on all buses in the event of high-speed collisions or rollovers, where the high-back seats would offer less protection.

For now, the National Transportation Safety Board’s suggestion is just that—a suggestion. No states are required to follow the advice, and there’s considerable expense involved in retrofitting older buses with belts. Currently, eight states require seat belts on large buses.

[h/t ABC News]

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