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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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Design Firm Envisions the Driverless School Bus of the Future
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Engineers have already designed vehicles capable of shuttling pizzas, packages, and public transit passengers without a driver present. But few have considered how this technology can be used to transport our most precious cargo: kids. Though most parents would be hesitant to send their children on a bus with no one in the driver's seat, one design firm believes autonomous vehicle technology can change their rides for the better. Their new conceptual project, called Hannah, illustrates their ideas for the future of school bus travel.

As Co.Design reports, Seattle-based design firm Teague tackled both the practical challenges and the social hurdles when designing their driverless school bus. Instead of large buses filled with dozens of kids, each Hannah vehicle is designed to hold a maximum of six passengers at a time. This offers two benefits: One, fewer kids on the route means the bus can afford to pick up each student at his or her doorstep rather than a designated bus stop. Facial recognition software would ensure every child is accounted for and that no unwanted passengers can gain access.

The second benefit is that a smaller number of passengers could help prevent bullying onboard. Karin Frey, a University of Washington sociologist who consulted with the team, says that larger groups of students are more likely to form toxic social hierarchies on a school bus. The six seats inside Hannah, which face each other cafeteria table-style, would theoretically place kids on equal footing.

Another way Hannah can foster a friendlier school bus atmosphere is inclusive design. Instead of assigning students with disabilities to separate cars, everyone can board Hannah regardless of their abilities. The vehicle drives low to the ground and extends a ramp to the road when dropping off passengers. This makes the boarding and drop-off process the same for everyone.

While the autonomous vehicles lack human supervisors, the buses can make up for this in other ways. Hannah can drive both backwards and forwards and let out children on either side of the car (hence the palindromic name). And when the bus isn’t ferrying kids to school, it can earn money for the district by acting as a delivery truck.

Still, it may be a while before you see Hannah zipping down your road: Devin Liddel, the project’s head designer, says it could take at least five years after driverless cars go mainstream for autonomous school buses to start appearing. All the regulations that come with anything involving public schools would likely prevent them from showing up any sooner. And when they do arrive, Teague suspects that major tech corporations could be the ones to finally clear the path.

"Could Amazon or Lyft—while deploying a future of roving, community-centric delivery vehicles—take over the largest form of mass transit in the United States as a sort of side gig?" the firm's website reads. "Hannah is an initial answer, a prototype from the future, to these questions."

[h/t Co.Design]

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New Pop-Up Museum in Maryland Looks at What It's Like Being a Teen Today
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Museums across America explore everything from break-ups to the human urinary tract system. Now, The Washington Post reports that a group of Maryland high school students have launched a pop-up museum dedicated to the modern teenage experience—selfies, schoolwork, and social pressures included.

Located in a vacant restaurant in Bethesda, Maryland, the Museum of Contemporary American Teenagers (MoCAT)—which is set to run from December 6 to December 9, and again from December 14 to December 16—is primarily organized by students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Organizers believe it’s the first project of its kind to explore teen identity and culture.

Displays at MoCAT, which received funding through donations and crowdsourcing, will include murals, 30 exhibits, live performances, and 150 “selfie” sculptures molded from clay. Exhibition themes are slated to change daily, and cover topics that run the gamut from unrealistic body image expectations to smartphone addiction and college application stress. Others are more political in nature, examining everything from fear of gun violence to shifting gender norms.

The MoCAT isn’t intended to be permanent, as it’s located inside the future sight of Marriott’s new headquarters. But according to The Washington Post, the students say they’d love to see the initiative eventually gain new life as a traveling exhibition featuring contributions from teens around America.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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