Marfa wows at science fair with four first-place awards

ODESSA — The Permian Basin Science & Engineering Fair took place last weekend, drawing around 800 kids from across the region to show off their science projects at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin in Odessa.

Among them were 38 students from Marfa ISD, ranging from third grade through 12th. And a number of those students also won prizes, with four first-prize awards going to the Marfa contingent.

One of those winners: third-grader Seth Nunez. “I’m the only one who got first place in my class,” he said.

Nunez’s project focused on “which cereal has the most iron,” he said. He tested four cereals: Life, Honey Nut Cheerios, Frosted Flakes and Bran Flakes — with the last showing the most iron content. The results inspired him to eat more Bran Flakes, he said.

“I was scared to see what place I’d gotten,” Nunez said. But when he was declared first place in the third-grade earth science category, it felt good.

He enjoyed his trip to Odessa, which also included a trip to an arcade and checking out other science projects that caught his interest.

“There was one that was like a jar and they put it outside,” he said, describing one of his favorites. As water in the jar evaporated, “it showed how weather forms.”

Another first-place winner was Noah Barton, a fifth-grader who won for chemistry. His project focused on cleaning up oil spills. “I wanted to do it because it’s a problem in our world that we wanted to fix,” he said.

Barton’s project looked at which material would better absorb oil spills: Activated carbon, cat litter or rabbit bedding. The winner was the activated carbon, which absorbed 1.6 centimeters of oil.

“It was pretty nerve-wracking,” he said of the experience. “When you get nervous, you stutter a lot. So, that’s what I did.”

Barton thanked his teachers and his parents for helping out. “My mom helped me out with a lot of stuff,” he said. “And my dad annoyed me a lot.”

His father, he explained, was “so perfect” and wanted to help out with the experiment. “I was like, ‘It’s my experiment,’” Barton said.

Ava Flores, a sixth-grader, didn’t end up placing. But she still enjoyed the experience.

She got to visit Gatti’s, a Odessa-area pizza place and arcade, and check out other cool experiments, including one on “how fire changes color.”

Flores’s experiment looked at “vegetable power,” she said. In other words: What vegetable would better power an LED light bulb? A potato or a pickle?

The result: the potato. “It had way more power,” she said. “The pickle didn’t power the LED light at all.”

A bit more complicated was the winning experiment by Jarad Forristal, a 12th grader who placed first in the robots and intelligent machines category. Even the name of the experiment was a bit of a mouthful.

“The actual title was something like ‘multimodal variational auto-encoders for data compression in sensory rich environments,’” he said. “The judge said they were familiar with the topic, but I don’t think they actually were.”

The experiment, Forristal explained, was focused on getting intelligent machines to learn and follow instructions faster. “That’s sort of a problem, because when it comes to training these sorts of things, the computational burden is huge,” he said. And while companies like OpenAI could pour millions of dollars into processing power, regular people like him couldn’t, he said.

As a teenager might be wont to do, Forristal insisted the science fair wasn’t fun. “I was bullied into going by the teachers,” he said when asked why he attended. “I’m trying to think of why I actually went.”

Still, he couldn’t hide his excitement for his own experimental topic.

“Robots are pretty cool,” he said. “Not gonna lie.”

For Cheri Aguero, a fourth- through sixth-grade teacher at Marfa ISD, the event was a success. Marfa ISD has been attending for the past couple years, she said, and attendance has been steadily growing, from around 20 students last year to 38 this past weekend.

The science fair allowed students to “apply the things they learn in the classroom outside of the classroom,” she said. It also gave the school a chance to treat the students with a trip out of town.

And above all, Aguero said, it helped build student confidence. “They’re used to speaking to their teachers in class,” she said of the students. But when talking to a stranger — like a science fair judge — they could get “real quiet and nervous.”