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NMMI cadets to compete in international science fair

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Two teams place in regionals

Cadets in a New Mexico Military Institute science group are now eligible for an international competition after placing high in the overall competition at a regional science fair.

“These kids are doing advanced science,” said Lt. Col. Frank Kimbler, associate professor of geology and earth sciences and an advisor for the STEM Club, along with Maj. Demvia Maslian, associate professor of science. The STEM Club promotes the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“They are doing stuff that would be done in a laboratory,” Kimbler said. “We gave them guidance, but we cut them loose and they did it.”

STEM Club members previously had been part of a winning team in December at the New Mexico Governor’s STEM Challenge. Eighteen out of 33 teams were selected by corporate sponsors for prizes for their work. Facebook chose the NMMI team for its development of an organic, non-alcohol-based hand sanitizer made from pecan shells, cacti gel and water. That earned each team member $500 and encouraged them in further research.

Now two teams of three cadets have placed among the top teams overall, not just in their categories, in the senior division of the 2020-2021 Southwest/Southeast New Mexico Science Challenge. The regional competition was sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory and held online March 20. Each winning team received a $500 prize and a waiver of the $750 registration fee for the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), with judging occurring online May 3-6.

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By placing at regionals, the cadets also earned the right to participate at the international fair without having to compete at the state level.

Kimbler said that larger science fairs are more intensive than some of the other science competitions and that cadets were eager to take the challenge.

“They will get to compete against high school students from all over the world,” said Kimbler. “And this is one of the most prestigious ones out there.”

At the regional fair, the team of Kyunghoon Yeom, Ivan Belyaev and Jaejoon Lee placed second for further research and work on the hand sanitizer. The team of Ryan Lee, Vincent Torres-Carpio and Yoo Younggun placed third for developing a prototype of a size-adjustable prosthetic arm.

Kimbler said the teams worked for months, with intensive work every night and every weekend for a couple of weeks before the competition. They also were aided by Daniel Appel, Pat Appel and Joan Goldsworthy, scientists from Albuquerque who have won prior international science fair competitions.

“They gave us guidance. They gave us hints as to what the judges would be looking for,” Kimbler said. “They critiqued the students’ presentations.”

The team working on the hand sanitizer had proven during the Governor’s STEM Challenge that their product was effective in stopping the growth of bacteria. For the regional science fair, they wanted a new extraction agent, not just water. They tested four before choosing isopropyl, and then tested to ensure that the end product, the sanitizer, no longer contained any alcohol content. They also tested the new formulation’s effectiveness against several different strains of bacteria and developed charts and data to explain their research.

The team working on the prosthetic arm wanted to demonstrate that an adjustable device could be made so that it could grow along with a young person. Kimbler said they used ordinary materials such as PVC pipe, the mechanism from a grabbing tool sold at stores and an Arduino software program. They also used a 3D printer to create the pins that enabled the arm to adjust lengths.

“It is very crude, but it does work,” he said.

Kimbler said the students did not have time to create the system that would enable sensors on the body to control the arm, but they intend to do that for the international competition. They also intend to use a carbon composite instead of the PVC material and plan to modify the device so that it will have as strong a grip when fully extended as when it is at its shortest length.

The concept originated with Torres-Carpio, Kimbler said.

“He dreamed about making this thing,” he said. “He had the design in his head and that is what he went with. He woke up in the middle of the night and wrote the details down.”

Both teams know that they will have to improve their projects and put forward a lot of effort to be ready for the international competition, which has a top prize of $75,000.

Maslian said the drive to compete comes from the students.

“When we won the Governor’s Challenge, I said, ‘That’s it,’ because I know we have to have a lot of time to spend with them,” she said. “But they kept coming to me saying, ‘Mom, can we join the science fairs so we can go to Intel? It was really their goal to go to ISEF.”

Just as some cadets call Maslian “Mom,” they also developed a good sense of camaraderie among themselves, Kimbler said.

“The winning is icing on the cake,” he said. “They worked tremendously well together. And when they were under a lot of pressure, they came together. They were singing and playing music and doing what kids do, but they were getting the work done.”

According to the ISEF website, the fairs are coordinated by the Society for Science nonprofit organization. The nonprofit works in various ways to promote science knowledge, education and research and has been coordinating science fairs since 1942. What is now ISEF has been occurring since 1950. About 1,800 high school students compete in ISEF each year.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.