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Young scientists explore local universe.

At its grandest level, science is the ongoing attempt of humans to make sense of the universe. However, many young scientists exhibiting their research at this year's fair, May 9 to 15, found inspiration for their work right around the corner - in their own schools and neighborhoods. Two examples:

* Jason Oraker, 15, a ninth-grader at Irving Junior High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., surveyed fellow students at four area junior high schools. He found that students who feel physically attractive - and therefore acceptable to their peers - are more likely to also feel a general sense of phchological well-being, "the perception someone has that their life is fulfilling, meaningful, and pleasant," says Oraker.

He began his study in response to a November 1992 broadcast of the television program "Prime Time Live," in which hidden cameras showed students in one Colorado Springs school playing catch in class, lighting fires in trash bins, and generally creating chaos. The program offered this behavior as a sign of a public school system in decline, he explains.

Oraker didn't buy it. He chose to look at the problem from a student's perspective. "I began to wonder if the kids in the video hadn't had enough attention at home, or something like that, and they felt the need to gain attention in some other way," he says. Oraker did some reading and came across the concept of psychological well-being. He combined several published psychological tests into a survey and used it to measure 305 students' perceptions of themselves.

Oraker's research suggests that many of his fellow students may indeed suffer from a significant lack of well-being, in part, his data indicate, because they feel physically unattractive. For example, 68 percent of seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders surveyed said they felt so restless in class they couldn't sit still, 71 percent said they were bored, and 40 percent reported feeling depressed at the time of the survey.

Ultimately, Oraker speculates, these feelings of discontent may race to messages conveyed by television and other media, which encourage children to value wealth, beauty, and conformity over individual achievement. To counteract this influence, adults should encourage students to develop their unique talents, he says.

Oraker won a third-place award in the behavioral and social sciences category for his project.

* Ednaly Ortiz, a 17-year-old senior from Jose S. Alegria School in Dorado, Puerto Rico, looked outside the classroom - and centuries back in time - in her research. With the help of classmates, Ortiz excavated archaeological sites minutes from her home, unearthing pottery fragments from two pre-Columbian peoples, the Elenoide and the Chicoide.

In the latest phase of her four-year study, Ortiz has used chemical and archaeological analysis to identify the specific areas in which these cultures mined clay for their pottery and how that pottery, once buried, affected soil layering and composition. In doing so, she wants to show that "archaeology is not only [recovering] the fragments, the things past cultures leave behind," says Ortiz, whose project earned a second-place award in the earth and space sciences category. "I want to show people that archaeology can be mixed with chemistry, geology, and topography" to both reconstruct past cultures and document their effects on the soil.

Ortiz determined the concentrations of various elements such as copper, iron, and calcium in excavated pottery fragments. She then fired ceramic samples form local clays, using the same open-bonfire method practiced by indigenous peoples who inhabited Puerto Rico between 900 A.D. and 1500 A.D. Analysis of these test samples enabled Ortiz to match historical pottery fragments with local clay deposits.
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Title Annotation:1993 International Science and Engineering Fair
Author:Pendick, Daniel
Publication:Science News
Date:May 29, 1993
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