Grace Williams wondered why the brilliant red Indian paintbrush didn’t grow as abundantly as other wildflowers.
The 16-year-old student at West Valley High School decided to find out. Her curiosity, determination and hard work earned Williams second place in a prestigious national high school science competition, after she first aced a state contest.
The quiet, confident sophomore follows in the tracks of four other state science champs from West Valley.
The school has produced five of the last eight state winners in the National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, put on by the U.S. Army.
In 1988, the school had the top three winners.
“You see the quality of students and you say this country’s going to be OK,” said Bob Bohlen, who’s been teaching the science project class for three of the 16 years he’s been with WVHS.
Bohlen gives his students most of the credit, but everyone else - students and faculty alike - give Bohlen top prize for being the spark behind the students’ fire.
“He’s the best teacher by far I’ve ever had,” said Jeremy McClintock, last year’s state science champion. “He can get you excited again when you don’t really want to be.”
The school’s support for the class also helps, Bohlen said. Most schools don’t have a class focusing on preparing science projects for competition.
West Valley principal Cleve Penberthy gives the class his full support although the low numbers of students - between six and eight - place it on the endangered list in terms of funding.
“This (class) exemplifies what I think we’re supposed to be about,” Penberthy said. Instead of “filling a grab bag” through memorization, the class forces students to absorb and apply what they’ve essentially taught themselves, he said.
The science project class does require self-motivation. Students come up with ideas and work at their own pace, with guidance from Bohlen. They track down supplies and call all over the country looking for researchers to steer them in the right direction.
“It’s just like doing research at a university when you’re scrounging,” said science teacher Bob Peregoy who helps teach the class. “They’re really designing something that nobody has ever done before. That inspires them.”
The school produced winners Chris Goddard, Rob Matles and Dave Smith in 1987, 1988 and 1989, respectively.
By taking the science project class, Smith, now 24, said he learned that even a “puny little high school student” can do groundbreaking research.
“High school students are getting papers published in science journals,” Smith said. “Even the big researchers are going to miss things.”
When Smith got to Whitman College, where he studied art, he was surprised by how many of the science students did not have research experience, something he had picked up at West Valley.
Some of the other schools that compete in the national contests present similar projects every year because the teachers specialize in a certain subject matter, Peregoy said.
There’s a school that always does a project on DNA sequencing and another that constantly tests the turbidity, or cloudiness, of water.
At West Valley, students come up with their own project ideas, no matter how much they diverge from Bohlen’s specialties.
“Bob is not afraid of letting students do things he has no knowledge of,” Peregoy said. “He’s not intimidated by his own ignorance. He thrives on new knowledge.”
Bohlen suggested Williams research why Indian paintbrush doesn’t grow as abundantly as other wildflowers. Williams ran with the idea. Williams found that the flower absorbed more water and grew more when exposed to endomycorrhizal fungi and lupine.
For example, the average number of leaves on the wildflower increased 92.9 percent in a sample grown with the fungus and 99.2 percent in a sample grown with lupine.
But the research was not all scientific. Williams had a struggle with each step, from finding a store that sold Indian paintbrush seedlings - in Tekoa - to tracking down a university professor who could help with technique.
Last year, McClintock, a thoughtful football, baseball and basketball player, had an added challenge.
While testing muscle reflex and comparing it to sports proficiency, he needed to find runners who had had biopsies, a muscle tissue sampling test.
Penberthy, the principal, is friendly with Bloomsday founder Don Kardong and arranged a meeting between McClintock and the former Olympic athlete. Kardong agreed to be tested by McClintock for the student’s experiment.
“Bob just has the chutzpah to encourage these kids to do that,” Peregoy said of Bohlen.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Award winner West Valley High sophomore places second in national science contest/B2
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