The world's largest high school science fair starts Sunday in Dallas, Texas.
More than 1,600 students from more than 60 countries will compete for prizes worth almost $9 million.
Some students are entering projects aimed at tackling the problem of school shootings.
Forget the days of volcanoes made from baking soda and vinegar.
At the world's largest science fair, which starts Sunday in Dallas, there are projects centered on clean energy, climate change, artificial intelligence — and school shootings.
"A lot of kids are doing projects that are meaningful to their own lives," said Maya Ajmera, the president and CEO of Society for Science, a century-old organization that works to advance public understanding of science and organizes the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair. "They are seeing things around their community, and saying they want to do something to solve it."
Ava Cotroneo, 16, from Maryland, is a finalist this year. She has an interest in engineering, and while she could have built a castle out of sugar cubes, like this reporter once did, she chose instead a project she hopes can bring about positive change in her community.
She designed a bulletproof backpack that can be worn by elementary school children. "I can't vote, but I can engineer," Cotroneo told Insider.
Maya Shah, 15, from Texas, is another finalist. She found a positive correlation between psychopathy — which among other things manifests as a lack of empathy and is often an attribute of those involved in gun violence — and intellectual humility. Intellectual humility, she says, is in part the ability to change your mind based on other people's viewpoints.
"There was a gem in my study," she said. "This positive correlation means that you can persuade people not to pick up a gun. This means there's a solution to the problem."
Both teenagers grew up in places affected by school shootings – and both said the threat feels ever-present.
'Armadillo Skin': the Bulletproof backpack insert
Cotroneo lives in the same county as Great Mills High School, where in 2018 a shooter opened fire in the hallway, killing a 16-year-old girl. Her mother is also a first-grade teacher who worries about the threat of a school shooting.
"My mom is grateful to have a small room inside her classroom that she can fit all her kids into in case there's a mass shooting," she said. "It's so sad to hear stories like that."
Cotroneo said that in today's climate of gun violence, the best you can do is "play defense."
So she researched materials, convinced her local Navy base to donate some Kevlar to the cause, and recruited some of "the older guys" in her community to let her use their guns to test her invention.
She came up with a 3-pound plate that combines a layer of steel, a layer of ceramic, and multiple layers of Kevlar. It fits into both adult- and child-sized backpacks and — based on her tests — can protect the wearer from shots fired by a 9mm handgun or a .223-caliber AR-15.
"Bathroom ceramic is my secret ingredient," she said. "It absorbs kinetic energy on impact and shatters. When compared to things like military-grade Kevlar, there is almost no kickback to the plate."
Finalists at the international science fair often go on to patent their products or set up companies. The sponsor of the fair, Regeneron, a biotech company, was founded by alumni of the fair.
"Almost 20% of these kids are patent-ready," said Ajmera, who is also the executive publisher of Science News.
Changing minds through science
Shah is from Arlington, Texas — an area she describes as the "epicenter" of US gun violence. There have been multiple mass shootings in Texas in the last year, including most recently at a mall in Allen, an hour from where Shah lives.
It was the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, during which 21 people died last year, however, that Shah says first got her thinking about solutions to gun violence.
"I'm in Texas, and there are school shootings all around me," she said. "I wanted to be free of that weight on my back."
She knew that psychopathy is correlated with perpetrators of gun violence. But Shah discovered there was no study correlating psychopathy to intellectual humility or the use of social media, so she started researching.
She quickly ruled out any real correlation between psychopathy and social media use, but she did find a positive correlation between psychopathy and intellectual humility. That means that even among people with high levels of psychopathy, they're still able to change their minds.
"It surprised me because you wouldn't expect someone who doesn't have empathy could change their mind," Shah said. "For me, this was really powerful because it was a problem that I'm facing in my everyday life. And I was able to find a solution."
Shah said her research shows that if communities tried to identify anyone displaying attributes related to psychopathy, they could intervene and provide alternative viewpoints and information that could help them change their thinking.
The student is no stranger to tackling projects at the center of political and cultural debate. During the height of COVID-19 hysteria, she carried out a study looking at the effectiveness of wearing masks at schools in Texas, a state that was then deeply divided on the issue.
Shah found masks were effective in protecting students from coronavirus, though they were less effective in protecting adult staff. Her results were widely shared and eventually published in a scientific medical journal.
"I love using science to answer questions. I also enjoy research," she said. "And I love being a person who can solve problems directly affecting people in my community."
Society for Science began organizing science fairs in the 1950s as a way to foster young talent and has launched almost 400 science fairs in more than 60 countries and territories worldwide.
At the Regeneron Science and Engineering Fair in Dallas, there will be 1,600 students from all over the world competing for almost $9 million in prizes. Winners are announced May 19.
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