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Find project, career ideas in news events
MISSISSIPPI STATE – Students struggling with ideas for school projects or future careers may only need to look at their newspaper to find topics that interest them.
Many Mississippi State University faculty members can trace their research careers back to science fair projects on topics that were new at the time but have continued to hold their interest for many years. One such topic this year could be the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Wes Burger, a professor in MSU’s Forestry and Wildlife Research Center, was developing science fair projects in the early 1970s when news of the environmental impacts of toxins, like DDT, was making headlines.
“I had wanted to be a wildlife biologist since about fifth grade, so I was keenly aware of issues impacting environmental quality,” Burger said. “Because of that interest, I did a series of projects in junior high using scale-model watersheds to study effects of land use practices on runoff and aquatic communities.”
Burger, who has judged several science fairs over the years, said projects can be great learning opportunities if approached with learning goals in mind.
“Projects are most valuable when they link to real concerns. The topics should be relevant and current – things students are reading in the newspapers and seeing on the news,” he said. “Projects need to ask real, testable questions.”
Burger said science fair projects develop an inquisitive spirit and teach about the scientific process.
“My junior high science projects did not win any prizes, but they were the start of a 30-year career in conservation,” he said.
Iowa native Amy Schmidt, an assistant Extension professor in agricultural and biological engineering, said a hot topic in the news when she was involved in science fairs was the greenhouse effect. Growing up in an agricultural state helped her develop a research idea to study how the greenhouse effect might impact growth of soybeans and corn.
“My parents did not have backgrounds in science, so this was something I developed on my own,” Schmidt said. “It was just current news that interested me.”
Agricultural topics continue to interest her. Schmidt’s work at MSU focuses on water and the environment, animal waste management and carbon footprints of livestock operations.
“Topics for school projects range from very basic to more difficult, possibly even connected with university research studies,” she said. “As students continue with science fairs, they often build on a previous year’s project and learn to use statistics for data analysis. Science fair projects can even lay the foundation for future careers.”
Schmidt said science projects may show students that science is not what interests them.
“Regardless of the topic or end result, these projects are great ways to help students learn communication skills and gain personal confidence,” she said.