SAN JOSE -- Attention, Tesla Motors: Your next budding engineering genius lives right in your backyard and has a question and a hunch about aerodynamics for you.
Ayinde Olukotun, ¿11, was intrigued by the electric car company's decision last year to raise its new Model S higher off the ground after a series of well-publicized battery fires.
"As a car guy, I wondered if this small change would alter the aerodynamics of the car," said Ayinde, a sixth-grader at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto.
He was among about 100 young scientists explaining their displays Saturday at the 12th annual Greene Scholars Program Science Fair.
The fair is part of the Dr. Frank S. Greene Scholars Program, aimed at nurturing African-American students' interest in science, technology, engineering and math -- often called the STEM fields. The program offers workshops, enrichment, a summer institute, a career fair and other activities to the 110 students in third through 12th grade enrolled in the program in four Bay Area counties, Program Director Gloria Whitaker-Daniels said.
The science fair, she said, provides a safe place for students to showcase their achievements and practice presentation skills and speaking to strangers.
Ayinde compared the energy efficiency of balsa model cars with different nose shapes, body sizes, centers of gravity and other variables. He thinks that while Palo Alto-based Tesla may have solved the problem of battery fires, it might be creating another problem with the Model S's lift, causing bouncing.
What to do?
"I might email Tesla about that," he said.
The room at Cypress Semiconductor was abuzz Saturday, as eager young scientists like Ayinde recounted their trials, successes and failures to about 200 family members, friends, teachers and others.
Launched 12 years ago in Santa Clara County as an initiative of the California Alliance of African American Educators, Greene Scholars has spread to San Mateo, Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
Whitaker-Daniels said 100 percent of its graduates go on to college and that 90 percent of them graduate. Forty percent major in STEM-related fields -- five times the national average for African-American college students.
The South Bay has a relatively small population of African-Americans, she said, so having children in the same room where they can share their interests with like-minded students is invaluable.
Students tested the effects of microwave radiation on seeds, what cooling method makes boiled eggs easier to peel and the most effective drink to replenish electrolytes (answer: coconut water, not sports drinks). Sophie Tekle, an eighth-grader at KIPP Summit Academy in San Lorenzo, showed that fingerprints are partly inherited.
Many of the experiments focused on the practical.
Redeat Adane, 14, found that -- gasp -- door handles on bathrooms in six private homes had many times more bacteria than do handles on six public restrooms.
"I really like microbiology," said the ninth-grader at Santa Clara High, who also admitted, "I am a germaphobe."
Also fascinated by bacteria, Shelby Johnson, 17, couldn't discern which types grow fastest when exposed to three genres of music. Next time, the junior at Sobrato High in Morgan Hill said, she'll reduce the variables.
In many cases, students discovered the essential lesson that science is not about being proven right -- it's what you learn along the way.
Carter Shaw, 8, set out to create a football-tossing device. But footballs were too unwieldy, so he switched to tennis balls. But then the tennis-ball-flinging cannon had problems with its bungee-cord-powered tube and a ball-holder cup that got stuck. So he tested balls flung at different angles from a baseball pitching machine.
Actually, the third-grader at El Carmelo Elementary in Palo Alto said the most fun was watching the balls fly over the back fence and land in a neighbor's yard.
As fourth-grader Charis Toney, 10, found, scientists can even enjoy misguided hypotheses.
When the fourth-grader at Don Callejon School in Santa Clara tested which fruits would make the best battery, she hypothesized that the acidic lemon would come out ahead. But it turned out the voltmeter, connected to copper wire and a galvanized nail in each fruit, indicated that pears are the top conductor.
The best part of the experiment? Besides testing the fruit, it was eating the pear, which might be a good conductor because it was lusciously juicy, she said, pointing to her display of a tomato, grapefruit, banana and lemon.
"That's why," she said of the pear, "it's not here."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.