Science students win honors for creative innovations

April 2, 2013

With her engineering design for a new ballet pointe shoe that can reduce dancers’ foot injuries, Oak Park and River Forest High School senior Noelani Ho recently placed first in the Chicago Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. Held at Loyola University Chicago, the annual symposium is extremely competitive, with only three students chosen from 40 entries to move on to the national level of competition.

Noelani’s project comes out of her work as a student in OPRF’s Investigative Research in Biomedical Innovation (IRBI) class. IRBI students have a full year to generate an idea for a research project, find a mentor who is an expert in their chosen field, then conduct research and produce a 40-page paper, 12-minute PowerPoint presentation, and formal research poster.

Initially, Noelani cast about for a research project focused on bioremediation, but her heart simply wasn’t in it. IRBI teacher Allison Hennings advised her to think about where her passion lies, and dance was the obvious answer. Noelani, who has studied ballet for 14 years, started a dance program in the Austin neighborhood, where she has used grant money and donations to pay for shoes and other supplies for some of the students. With pointe shoes running $60-$90 a pair, she decided to come up with a design that not only would cost less but also reduce the number of foot injuries that dancers commonly experience. Noelani worked with an orthopedic surgeon and molded a prototype out of an orthotic material. “This project is so unique, unlike any other project I’ve seen other students do,” said Hennings. “She didn’t look at anyone else’s project—she truly engineered something different.”

For the next level of competition, Noelani and Hennings will travel to Dayton, Ohio, May 1-5 for the 51st National Junior Science & Humanities Symposium, where 240 students from across the country will vie for the chance to compete this summer at the London International Youth Science Forum.

In other notable news, senior Rebecca Streit has placed first and senior Matthew Hennings has placed second in the state in the U.S. National BioGENEius Challenge. As first-place winner, Rebecca will compete with students across the country to become one of 10 who will represent the United States in the International BioGENEius Challenge, the most prestigious high school biotechnology competition in the world. The 10 winners will be announced on April 21.

For her winning project, Rebecca focused on using natural compounds in spinach to convert dangerous residue from explosives into less toxic compounds. She proposes using her research to create a spray that could be used to remediate toxic residue in war-torn areas and near explosive manufacturing plants where the soil is contaminated. For his project, Matthew created a bandage based on spider webs that kills bacteria and prevents the growth of new bacteria; it will be especially useful for patients with ulcers such as diabetic foot ulcers.

OPRF recently has had several other science successes as well:

  • Seventeen OPRF students have been selected to advance to the next level in the Midwest Research Competition: Positive Impact Investigatory Design. Held at Wheeling High School on April 12, the competition focuses on how high school students can use their ideas to have a positive impact on the world around them. The students will present their original research projects to a judging panel of private-sector experts, as well as high school and university instructors. Top winners receive scholarship awards.
  • Senior Matthew Hennings is one of the first students in the state to earn a digital badge from Intel and Society for Science & the Public (SSP). The Intel/SSP badge system was designed to provide incentives for independent student research. Students who earn a badge can list it on their student résumés and college applications to signify superior achievement in the sciences. Matthew earned the badge for developing a wheatgrass-based compound that treats MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant skin bacteria that can be deadly if it enters the body.
  • Senior Adrian Karkut has advanced to the semi-finals in the USA Biology Olympiad (USABO), an extremely difficult test that roughly 5,000 students take. He recently took the second test in an effort to become one of the 20 national finalists who will compete to become one of the four students representing the United States at the International Biology Olympiad.
  • IRBI teacher Allison Hennings, who is a finalist for the Golden Apple Awards, has received grant funding from Race to the Top to train 100 teachers from around the state on how to implement STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs in their schools. Hennings will present her IRBI class as the model during a two-week training this summer.