No- Non­sense Science

Today’s teens com­pete in more than just sports

RSWLiving - - Profile - WRIT­TEN BY DAN PROWSE WHICKER Dan Prowse Whicker is the ex­ec­u­tive man­ag­ing ed­i­tor for TOTI Me­dia and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor.

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.”

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