By: Tiffany Whitfield

When more than 200 students with scientific and engineering projects filled the Chartway Arena at the Ted Constant Convocation Center on April 15, for the 2023 Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair (VSSEF) synergy filled the arena. Students from throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia presented their projects that showcased their aptitude in science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Old Dominion University was selected as the host site for the VSSEF in 2021, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions, the 2022 competition was held virtually. This year was the first year since 2019 that students were in-person. Co-sponsors for the VSSEF include ODU’s College of Sciences, ODU’s Batten College of Engineering, Virginia Tech College of Science, Leidos and American Electric Power Foundation.

The 224 VSSEF high school competitors worked for months on their projects and had won their respective local and 11 regional fairs from all around Virginia to have the opportunity to face off for the coveted prizes. Students were inspired and motivated to create their projects based on personal experiences and their natural curiosity to explore subjects deeper.

High school competitors arrived at 7:30 a.m., to compete in category and special awards judging. There were 173 projects and 42 team projects that were judged. Each of the students showed off their analytical, research, design, and presentation skills in this highly competitive fair.

Having competitors center court at Chartway Arena allowed for students to interact and see the hard work put in by their peers. Students were inspired and motivated to create their projects based on personal experiences to the natural curiosity to explore subjects deeper.

Project categories included: robotics, biomedical, physics, environmental sciences, software, material science and microbiology, just to name a few. The depth of projects that these high school competitors showed off at the VSSEF made it challenging for judges.

One of the competitors, Alexis Alms, from Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Virginia was inspired to create her communications project after breaking her collar bone back in the fall. “I had a lot of difficulty typing and writing because I couldn’t use my hand, and I realized other people have that,” said Alms. “If you’re paralyzed or have autism or if you have a speech impediment, some people need communications assistance, and it led me down a rabbit hole, and I asked, ‘what if I can type with my brain?’ ” She created an electroencephalogram headset, where she measured brain waves and turn them into text. She used C++ codes to decipher simple phrases..

Aayush Shivashankar from Chantilly High School, in Northern Virginia (Fairfax County) analyzed the ability of duckweed to extract lead out of contaminated water. “I wanted to create an experiment that would take all of the lead from the drinking water, but at the same be able to tolerate those high levels of chlorine that are initially in the drinking water given that chlorine is also very toxic to plants,” said Shivashankar. He took careful thought into designing an experiment that would not harm plants using a method known as phytoremediation. “Given that I did this at a high school lab, equipment wasn’t great, but I really wanted to show no matter what equipment you have you can do it and you can always make a difference, it takes perseverance and problem-solving,” said Shivashankar. He worked on this experiment until he was able to have drinkable water.

David Race from Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach created a project that was sparked from his inspiration for the construction of spacecraft and the kind of materials that engineers would choose to use for outer structures. “I wanted to explore materials that are considered strong and reliable for these kinds of things, and I wanted to explore the effects of the heat treatment on them,” said Race. “I looked at varying lengths of time for heat treatment of these materials and the bonding of these materials.”. He heated materials as high as up to 860-degrees Celsius. Additionally, he took the initiative to contact a professional at NASA, and was given the idea to “look at metals like titanium.” 

Seoyoung Jun was inspired by the shape of pine trees and created solar tree models. “I created a measurement device to measure the power outputs of the solar trees and the control model, and I did some data analysis,” said Jun. “I created the optimal solar tree model, and through one tree I can manipulate one of the shapes for different seasons. One of the big issues of the regular solar models, is that it’s only facing south, so efficiency drops when the sun is near the horizon, but with this one, depending on the time of year, this changes” Her solution offers an option to the energy shortage currently experienced “by conventional solar panel designs in the winter.”

Yashvir Sabharwal from Battlefield High School in Haymarket, Virginia in northern Virginia (Prince William County), created a research proposal that is based on the application of artificial intelligence in renal carcinoma which is a form of kidney disease. His inspiration to design his research was partly due to extra time he had during the height of the COVID-19 global pandemic when he learned about python programming and a little about artificial intelligence. But it was the passing of his grandfather more than six years ago that left a lasting impact on him. “The year before he died, we went to India for vacation and I had to see him go through dialysis and that was a pretty tough time for me, and when he passed away the doctor’s diagnosed him with kidney failure,” said Sabharwal. “They couldn’t understand what was going on, so I wanted to do something related to kidney carcinoma or anything related to the kidney that can help some future patients who are in the same situation as my grandfather was in.” He used 142 hours of research time to work on this project. Results of his study were published in a preprint journal called “Archive”, and he submitted his project study to a community at Stanford University called “MEDARC”.  A computational pathologist from there looked at his work and validated it. “I genuinely wanted to solve a problem and that is what motivated me,” said Sabharwal. 

After five hours of judging and deliberations, 22 students with 10 individual and four team projects were left on the arena floor, and grand prize judging then commenced.

Organizing an event of this magnitude, took years in the making and was a team effort. Gabriel Franke, assistant to the dean of College of Sciences, served as the VSSEF fair director. Justin Mason, director of the Michael and Kimthanh Lê Digital Theater and Planetarium was the VSSEF assistant fair director.

“This year’s VSSEF brought together high-achieving high school contestants and ODU faculty and students, as well as local STEM professionals,” said Franke. “ODU is very proud of the talented and dedicated Virginia high school students who invested themselves in this competition and of the work ODU faculty, staff and students who made this event a reality.”

Additional vital team members included ODU’s Associate Dean Lesley Greene who served as the chair of the scientific review committee and ODU Chemistry Lecturer Emily Hardy who served as judge coordinator.

Hardy said, "Promoting scientific inquiry through science & engineering fairs is something that has been important to me since I was still a student. I have coordinated judging for science and engineering fairs for almost five years, and it is always a rewarding experience. The professionals and researchers who acted as judges at the VSSEF on Saturday were all so impressed with the quality of the projects presented. The students worked so hard and are so creative with their solutions to the problems they see in the world around them. It makes me incredibly excited to see what the future holds for some of these brilliant students. I'm sure some of them will become our colleagues in no time."

The judges came from all over the Commonwealth of Virginia. Local professionals who had the difficult task of judging included employees of NASA, Hampton Roads Sanitation District, Norfolk Botanical Gardens, and First Landing State Park. There were also faculty and graduate students from Hampton University, Virginia Tech, The College of William & Mary, and Virginia Commonwealth University. However, the majority of the judges were ODU faculty and graduate students. 

“We were honored to host the important Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair,” said Gail Dodge dean College of Sciences. “Hosting these talented and dedicated students is a lot of fun and they are passionate about their projects and their enthusiasm is infectious.”

An outreach fair was held in the lobby of the Chartway Arena so these talented students could learn more about ODU. Faculty from various departments along with student organizations filled the lobby of the Chartway Arena.

By 4:00 p.m., the VSSEF awards ceremony, hosted by WAVY-TV 10’s Chief Meteorologist Jeff Edmonson, began. ODU’s Batten College of Engineering Dean Kenneth Fridley welcomed students during the awards ceremony.

Edmonson congratulated all the competitors and said, “you’ll remember this day for the rest of your lives, this experience of meeting with the judges and expressing your research is something you’re always going to do in your future careers. Whatever your dream may be, your future looks really bright.”

Each of the grand prize winners will have an all-expenses paid trip to attend the international competition, Regeneron ISEF 2023, the world's largest pre-college STEM competition from May 13 to 19 in Dallas, Texas at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. Regeneron ISEF 2023 will be a fully in-person event complimented by a virtual site where finalists will share their projects online. All judging and events will be in-person. 

The list of 14 category winners is below.  To see the full list of winners, click here.

Animal, Behavioral, and Social Sciences
First Place
: Ellie Kim, Fayza Mehrin, Madison Nally
Title: Feasting Fruit Flies: Evaluating the Effect of selected Ayurvedic Plant Extracts on the Mood, Memory, and Fertility of Drosophila melanogaster

Biochemistry and Cellular & Molecular Biology
First Place
: Roger Zhu
Title: Nanoscopic Delineation of Rodent and Human Neuromodulatory Transmission

First Place
: Benjamin Hawkins
Title: The Impact of Insect Repellent on the Effectiveness of Sunscreen

Computational Biology and Translational Medicine
First Place
: Ebru Ayyorgun
Title: Novel 3D Linked-Data Exploration for Analysis of High-Dimensional Datasets

Earth & Environmental Sciences
First Place
: Franziska Borneff
Title: Measuring the Effects of Climate Change on Arctic Rivers

Engineering Technology: Statics and Dynamics
First Place
: Aryaman Khanna, Mihika Dusad
Title: HypeFL: A Novel Blockchain-Based Architecture for a Fully-Connected Autonomous Vehicle System using Federated Learning and Cooperative Perception

Environmental Engineering
First Place
: Frank Chang, Jason Yoo, Stephen Tsai
Title: ARM: Streamlining Recyclable Waste Identification with Highly Scalable Deep Learning Algorithms

Health Sciences and Biomedical Engineering
First Place
: Yashvir Sabharwal
Title: NephroNet: A Novel Program for Identifying Renal Cell Carcinoma and Generating Synthetic Training Images with Convolutional Neural Networks and Diffusion Models

Material Science and Sustainable Energy Design
First Place
: Sofia Pakhomkina, Ellie Ngo
Title: The Effect of Temperature and Cooling Methods on Solar Cell Efficiency

First Place
: Ashrita Gandhari
Title: LetoHealth: A Second Opinion for Embryologists to Aid the Evaluation of the Health of Fertilized Embryos

Physics, Math, and Astronomy
First Place
: Rockwell Li
Title: Breaking the Limits of Scanning Tunneling Microscopy Using Super Resolution

Plant Sciences
First Place
: Aayush Shivashankar
Title: The Effect of Chlorine (ppm) on the Lead Phytoremediation Rate in Lemna minor

Robotics and Intelligent Machines
First Place
: Zachary Schwehr
Title: Brain Tumor Segmentation and Classification Based on Deep Learning, Attention Mechanisms, and Energy Based Uncertainty Predictions

Software and Embedded Systems
First Place
: Shinyoung Jeon
Title: MoodBox: Vocal Screening for Depression and Gamified Relief

Students will get to come back to Monarch Nation in 2024, as ODU will be the host site for VSSEF again.

“The fair was a fun and exciting way to introduce these high-achieving students to ODU, and we are looking forward to another wonderful year of hosting these bright students,” said Franke.