Students taking part in Popular Science’s first science fair, sponsored by Delta Faucet, were asked to tackle a pretty serious topic—anyone up for saving the Earth?—but they’re hardly alone. Classrooms around the country are delving into everything from cloning to dark matter. Let’s sit in the back row and observe.
First on the agenda: “Any sort of computer-based device,” says Mike Hotell, a physics teacher at West Campus High School in Sacramento, Calif. From basics to complex apps, technology “generates more questions than anything else.”
Steve Long, science department chair at Rogers High School in Rogers, Ark., agrees, saying kids are intrigued by technology’s ability to simulate situations that are either too dicey (chemical reactions) or too complex (molecular structure) to create for real. And just mention the idea of “living” computer chips made from biological materials, and nobody’s sleeping on their backpack.
Bev DeVore-Wedding, a math and science teacher at Meeker High School in Meeker, Colo., says her students take a practical approach to technology. Living in a mining and farming community, students talk about designing robotics that make the former safer and the latter more efficient. (They’re also into creating sturdier mountain bikes, but that’s another story.)
Health-related issues are also firing up teens. DeVore-Wedding reports a keen interest in finding a cure for cancer, while biochemistry gets Long’s kids going. Genetic cloning, growing replacement parts for the body and manipulating the chemical compositions of medicine are conversational hot buttons.
We’ve known for a while that kids are leading the environmental rally, and Hotell’s students are particularly into hybrid and electric cars. But they’re looking further afield as well, into the so-called God particle or Higgs boson—a subatomic particle that, as Hotell puts it, gives everything mass. So while you may think your teenager is obsessing over the latest boy band, it could be she’s contemplating mass, force and particles. It’s a subject that “tries to get at the very nature of the universe,” Hotell explains. And doesn’t that sound just like your teen?