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Alarming twisters: a tornado can cut a deadly path. What if you can't hear the alarms that alert you to take cover? Four budding scientists designed a lifesaving solution.

Spring and summer spell the return of swimming pool weather. But if you live in "Tornado Alley"--an area in the U.S. considered to be the twister capital of the world (see map, p. 11)--these seasons also bring screaming whirlwinds that could whip you off your feet and damage your home. "It's scary," says Dylan Nall, a seventh-grader at Clyde Boyd Junior High in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. "Tornadoes are unpredictable, and they could form and hit anywhere in the area."

Dylan knows to take cover when he hears storm sirens, but classmate Laura McGee was concerned for their science teacher, John Gisler, who is deaf. "[Laura] if I could hear the sirens," says Gisler. "When I said no, the students got talking." Turns out, Gisler wasn't the only one who couldn't hear the alarms. Student Jennifer Procter explains: "We can't hear the sirens in a few places at school either--like in bathrooms and noisy hallways." Also, adds seventh-grader Austin MeGinis, "Since both fire and storm sirens are high pitched, it's easy to get them confused."

This worried the four students. Mixing up the danger signals and then performing the wrong safety drill could be just as deadly as not hearing the alarms. "For tornadoes, you should stay indoors and crouch with your hands covering your head," explains Austin. But for fires, students file out the nearest school exit.

These 13-year-olds were so convinced that, the school's alarm system needed improvement that Gisler challenged them to come up with a solution.


To put together an organized science project, the team knew that they'd have to follow the scientific method, a step-by-step process that scientists sue to perform experiments. "Without this process, our project would probably be a mess," says Jennifer. Here's how they followed the steps and turned their community concerns into an award-winning invention.


Believe it or not, all experiments begin with an observation. As these students pointed out, they had difficulty hearing or recognizing the warning signal at school. The team did background research to learn how they could make an alarm system that would alert everyone efficiently and accurately.

First, the students searched the Web for information ranging from hearing to the cost of alarm-system parts. Then, they spoke to experts like firefighters, alarm makers, city officials, and a speech-and-hearing organization, to learn about safety measures and the technology behind existing alarms. But before the students could start designing their dream alarm system, they had to prove that there's a real need for it.


Four students saying the school's current alarm system is ineffective doesn't provide solid evidence that it needs improvement. "We needed to show that other people have problems with it too," says Austin. So they came up with a research question: How does the school community react to its alarm system?

Since the team didn't know the answer, they made a hypothesis, or an educated guess, about the answer to the research question. Their hypothesis: The school community has trouble hearing and recognizing its fire and tornado sirens.


"You need to run experiments to see if your hypothesis is correct," says Jennifer. In order to get reliable results, an experiment must include a well-thought-out procedure (see p. 14), or a step-by-step plan containing clear instructions to test the effect of one or more variables (characteristics) on another variable.

The team wanted to test how people in their school respond to the alarm system. So they mapped out experiments. For one, they planned to ask student volunteers to listen to the warning signals and then identify them. Second, they would survey teachers on how well they could hear the alarms from inside their classrooms.

In any experiment, there are two major types of variables. For the team's tests, the independent variables--or the factors you adjust on purpose--were the fire and tornado sirens they used in the experiment. How the test subjects responded to the sirens was the dependent variable, or factor that responds to the change. With a plan ready, the team set out to collect data, or information.


After studying the data, the team reached a conclusion, or a result summary. 2hrns out, their hypothesis was correct. "Thirty-five percent of the students couldn't tell the difference between the fire and storm sirens," says Jennifer. "And 37 percent of the teachers said they couldn't hear [the sirens], especially if the doors were closed." This was proof: The school's alarm system needed an overhaul.


Using their research, the team moved forward with their invention. How successful were they in creating an efficient and accurate warning system? The team came up with a prototype (working model) that amazed security experts. Their solution: Install panels of different colored lights--with one color assigned to each type of danger--throughout the school. When an alarm sounds, the corresponding colored light flashes. "Flashing lights will get people who can't hear to pay attention," says Jennifer. A color code prevents confusion about which danger is at hand.

Judges of the Christopher Columbus Awards, a program that challenges students to make positive changes in their communities, were impressed. The team was selected as one of the eight national finalists for 2004. "I'm proud of my students," says Gisler. "But we have more to do."

Now the team is raising money to install their invention in every room and hallway of their school. They hope other schools in Tornado Alley will follow. "It feels good to know that perhaps our creation may someday save someone's life," says Dylan.

Did You Know?

September is National Preparedness Month. Everyone needs to be prepared for emergencies, whether it's a natural disaster or a national emergency.

For tips on how to create an emergency plan, visit beprepared. This special report has planning pointers and safety facts: Did you know that flashlights drain batteries even when turned off?

Plus, ask your teacher * for contest details for a chance to win a school visit from Tom Ridge, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary.

* See teacher's edition

Nuts & Bolts


* Base your idea for an experiment on an observation.

* State your purpose. Usually, the purpose of an experiment is stated in the form of a research question: What is the effect of [your independent variable] on [your dependent variable]?

* Do background research to find out what is already known about your topic.

* State your hypothesis, an educated guess about what the result will be.

* Design a detailed procedure (see p. 14).

* Carry out your experiment and collect data.

* Record your results. In many cases you can present your results in charts, pictures, or graphs (see p. 18).

* Draw a conclusion from your results. Did your hypothesis prove true?

Scientific Method: The LINGO

VARIABLES: Characteristics in an experiment that change or could be changed.

INDEPENDENT VARIABLE: Factor you change on purpose; also called manipulated variable.

DEPENDENT VARIABLE: Factor that responds to a change in the independent variable; also called responding variable,

HYPOTHESIS: Educated guess about how changing the independent variable will affect the dependent variable.

CONSTANTS: Characteristics in an experiment that are kept unchanged in all trials.

CONTROL: Standard to which you will compare your results.

TRIALS: Number of times an experiment is repeated for each level, or value, of the independent variable. The more trials, the more reliable your results.


* Grolier search term: tornado

* To learn about tornadoes and tornado safety, visit the Web site of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration:
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Earth: scientific method
Author:Chiang, Mona
Publication:Science World
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 20, 2004
Previous Article:Wanted: winning project: how can you tap into your interests to create a stellar science project? Judges offer you their advice.
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