No- Nonsense Science
Today’s teens compete in more than just sports
When you think back to your years in high school, you might remember how the “jocks” were the super- competitive types and how the science lovers tended to be the quiet, “geeky” kids. Of course, that was, and is, a blatant generality, but being a teenager did have a way of making us all separate ourselves into certain cliques and groups. Today, however, it is not as easy to generalize about modern teens, and competition certainly is not exclusive to sports programs. In fact, today’s science lovers can be every bit as competitive as the football, basketball, soccer, and tennis players.
Take, for example, seventeen- yearold Amanda Podlasek, a student at the Canterbury School and fierce competitor in the arena of science competitions. Podlasek recently returned from Orlando, where she went head- to- head against over one thousand other teens in her fourth appearance at a state science competition. To get there, she had to first compete and win both locally and regionally.
With several years of experience at this, Podlasek is not shy about submitting her projects to critical eyes. “I was in the environmental category,” she explains, “and there were about sixty projects that were competing with me in my category alone; it was quite a big competition.” To make it even more difficult, the five judges who looked at her project were non- biologists, and Podlasek’s project was based on the biological problem of red tide. Also, she found that many people at the competition did not know about the problem of red tide and how it affects the environment in Southwest Florida. Despite these difficulties, Podlasek left Orlando with an award from the Sierra Club Foundation, and she plans to continue her project and compete again next year. “I had an amazing experience,” she says happily, “and I would do it again.”
Podlasek became interested in red tide at a young age. One day, while walking the beach on Sanibel, she saw a massive amount of dead fish and other aquatic wildlife that had been killed by a red- tide outbreak. Wanting to know more about this phenomenon and why it killed animals that she adored, Podlasek started participating in programs at the Sanibel Sea School, where cofounder Dr. J. Bruce Neill became a sort of mentor to her. Jumping right into research and experimentation, the young Podlasek worked on a project that studied how communities of certain filter- feeding sea animals— namely clams, tunicates, and oysters— could act as natural water filters as they digested red- tide algae. Placing communities of different animals into strategic locations helped Podlasek to determine where such communities could be expected to do their work and which types of animals did the best job. Her study and findings became the project that she took to competition.
“The competition over the last four or five years has increased dramatically,” says Brian Podlasek, owner of the Island Cow restaurant on Sanibel and Amanda’s proud father. “It’s not just ‘ kids with silly projects.’ A lot of them had to do with the environment and energy and important things going on in the world.” Indeed, far from being the classic baking- soda volcano projects of yesterday, today’s teens are engaging in scientific endeavors that would have been considered college- level study twenty or thirty years ago. “It obviously takes a lot of time,” Brian Podlasek admits, “but then when you see the result and you’re sitting there in the crowd, it’s pretty amazing.”
“It’s especially about the time involved,” Elke Podlasek, Amanda’s mother adds. “It’s all done outside of school and she does lose a lot of her social time.” Even so, Amanda Podlasek’s projects and study are turning heads in the local red- tide- awareness community. “This year,” Elke notes, “people are contacting her from all over the place and more people are getting involved. It’s really looking like she’s on to something that could actually minimize the red tide. I’m quite impressed, and I’m very proud of her.”