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Keeping it positive: WHS event puts new twist on traditional science fair

Published May 28, 2024

Combine the time-tested science fair with a contemporary focus on societal benefit and what do you get? Wheeling High School’s innovative and popular Positive Impact Symposium.

By the numbers, the Symposium recently drew more than 65 original student research projects from eight schools as it marked its 11th anniversary. But the event’s value transcends any statistics.

“Our main goal is to shine a spotlight on student research,” said Wheeling science teacher Dr. Greg Wallace, who has helped organize the event for eight years. “What’s unique about this is that the student research has to make a positive impact on society.”

As evidenced by this year’s winning project, in which Wheeling senior Jenny Dawson presented a way to create water harvesting nets, consisting of fibers designed to harvest potable water from fog. Jenny’s work made an impression beyond the Symposium. Her project also earned Gold at Illinois Junior Academy of Science (IJAS) Regional Science Fair, Gold at IJAS State Science Fair and 1st runner up at iBio's Illinois BioGENEius Challenge.

“I got really focused on water scarcity and came across the use of biomimicry of spider silk and a desert beetle,” said Jenny, who plans to study biology or environmental science after graduation.

Both of these animals/natural elements have unique properties that impact their abilities to collect water from humid air, so I then researched how I could recreate these properties and implement them in a way that would address scarcity. From there I researched ways water is collected in arid regions, and one method is fog harvesting nets,” explained Jenny, who credits Nano teachers and event coordinators Carol Bouvier and Kim Milligan, as well as school librarian Barry Hanrahan, for their guidance in conducting research.

What further distinguishes the Positive Impact Symposium from more traditional science fairs is the inclusion of both a gallery walk and five keynote presentations: two by STEM professionals who serve as judges and three by students whose projects earned finalist honors.

This expanded student-professional interaction, Wallace said, provides an invaluable element for participants. “A panel of judges sticks around for ‘Ask a Scientist,’ in which students may ask the panel any questions they want,” Wallace said. “Then, we let the STEM professionals break out and have 1-on-1 time talking with students. That part is really rewarding for a lot of kids, validating what they are doing as they get to interact with professionals.”

As for the STEM professionals, many enjoy the event so much that they’ve returned annually, to the point that organizers have little trouble recruiting the couple of dozen judges required.

“They want to keep coming back, and they invite colleagues to come join them to see what these kids can do,” Wallace said. “I often hear them say something like, ‘I wish I could have done this when I was in high school; I’m so impressed by what the kids can do.’ ”

Impressive in its own right is the gallery walk, in which attendees can take a close look at other Wheeling student projects. This year’s gallery included, for instance, a variety of STEM initiatives by Wheeling students, including their high-mileage vehicle, Robot Rumble robots, a programmable robotic arm and a flight simulator provided by aviation students.

Students from eight suburban schools participated this year: Elk Grove and Wheeling from District 214, along with Glenbard South, Niles West, New Trier, Oak Park River Forest, Stevenson and the Illinois Math and Science Academy.

Hanrahan, who helped lay the foundation for the inaugural event in 2012 and has watched it grow and flourish, said: “I worked with (former WHS math and science teacher) Ken Indeck as someone who wanted to elevate regional science fairs by addressing current issues with professionals judging. Out of that shared vision, Positive Impact was born. I’m happy to see Dr. Wallace have the event reach even more schools and students.”

For his part, Dr. Wallace deflects personal credit while embracing everything the Symposium represents. “We really encourage projects to present how findings can have a positive impact on society,” he said. “We are very proud of it.”