Students from across Rhode Island put their data on the line at the state competition, which will send two high school winners to an international competition in Los Angeles in May.


WARWICK — Eleven-year-old Jonah Cohen was curious about those brain-training games such as Lumosity that you see advertised on TV. He wondered if they really worked.

He’s probably not the only person who’s asked that question, but he is unusual, especially for a sixth-grader, in that he decided to seek an answer by conducting a series of scientific experiments.

The results were on display Saturday at the Rhode Island Science and Engineering Fair. Cohen, a student at St. Pius V School in Providence, found that brain games could make a difference for the very young and the very old.

“I didn’t realize it would impact those age groups the most,” he said while standing in front of a posterboard explaining his project.

That type of intellectual curiosity could be seen across the 203 projects on display at the Community College of Rhode Island on the first day of the fair, which wraps up on Sunday. They were done by 250 students — some participated as teams — representing 35 schools from across Rhode Island.

The state’s first science fair was held in 1948, and it’s changed a lot since then. For a start, the projects have gotten more sophisticated — “we’re not building volcanoes anymore,” said volunteer staff member Claire Fortier.

And the types of science they delve into have also broadened. Many of this year’s projects focused on behavior and social issues, exploring such topics as gender and religion, said Mark Fontaine, the longtime director of the fair.

The fair is divided into two divisions: middle school and high school. Only the high school entrants compete for the right to represent Rhode Island in an international competition that will be held in Los Angeles in May. Ten finalists were selected on Saturday and the two winners that will go to Los Angeles will be chosen on Sunday.

“Some kids are doing ‘change the world’ types of things,” said Karin Hajj, assistant director of the fair. “The science fair can open the door for a lot of kids to their careers.”

That’s not an exaggeration. Take Justine Fortier, Claire’s daughter. A finalist all four years in high school, she is now an electrical engineer at Raytheon, a sponsor of the fair.

“For me, it was all about the experience,” said Justine, who is one of this year’s judges.

Part of that experience for Griselys Mena, an 11th-grader at TIMES2 Academy in Providence, was learning that doing science can be a lot of work. For her project that looked at the effectiveness of natural remedies in killing bacteria, she did tests on 600 petri dishes.

“The more data, the better,” the 17-year-old said. “It was a lot of work, but I learned a lot from it.”

So did sixth-grader Cohen, who plans to be back next year and has dreams for the years afterward.

“I like how the brain works, and I’d like to pursue that path when I get older,” he said.

The fair is open to the public from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday. The high school finalists are:

Kelly Aldana, TIMES2 Academy; Nicolas Berg, Bishop Hendricken High School; Priyanka Bonifaz, Barrington High School; Liam Bullard, Mt. Hope High School; Christina Curren, Barrington High School; Emily Kaczynski, South Kingstown High School; Claire Martel, Barrington High School; Isabella Miller, Mount St. Charles Academy; Alisha Toribio, TIMES2 Academy; Anjali Subramanian, La Salle Academy;  and Paige Noland, St. Mary Academy-Bay View

 

— akuffner@providencejournal.com

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On Twitter: @KuffnerAlex