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UGA supports Georgia high school students through Science & Engineering Fair

Four high school students traveled to Los Angeles, California, to represent the state of Georgia at the 2024 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) held May 11-17. Two won monetary prizes during the ISEF special awards ceremony. Daniel Williams of East Coweta High School won the Chief of Naval Research Scholarship Award of $15,000. Daniel was also awarded fourth place in the Robotics & Intelligent Machines category. Tatyana McVay of Paul Duke STEM High School in Gwinnett County won the $750 U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory Award.

These students found success on the international competition stage after participating in the 76th Georgia Science & Engineering Fair (GSEF), organized and executed each year by the University of Georgia’s Office of Academic Special Programs, a part of the Georgia Center for Continuing Education & Hotel. The three-day event in April in downtown Athens included over 500 students from all over the state who presented their projects, often inspired by their own life experiences, to university representatives and industry professionals.

Through the GSEF, the Georgia Center’s Office of Academic Special Programs provides middle and high school students the chance to showcase innovative research projects that address a range of real-world problems and have a potential impact on Georgians.

Williams, of Newnan, presented his award-winning project entitled “Zenith Soar X-4: Autonomous Drone for Autonomous Drone for Disaster Relief and Detection” at the ISEF after presenting it at the GSEF. His research provides viable robotic detection for survivors in disaster relief efforts, meaning human error is negated when finding survivors after a natural disaster, improving the response time and survival rate after such tragedies.

“In middle school, I watched a documentary about a natural disaster in Florida. It mentioned that many victims and first responders didn’t die in the incident but in the aftermath because it was hard to reach them in time. This inspired me to use technology to help,” says Williams.

McVay, of Peachtree Corners, won at the ISEF with her project entitled “Optimizing the Laser Alignment Process: Automated Alignment for Enhanced Efficiency in Magneto-Optical Trap Calibration,” which adds potential military applications to her GSEF project design, “Development of an Automatic Laser Beam Aligner.”Her system automatically aligns lasers, increasing their calibration speed, accuracy, and efficiency.

“My project aims to improve the magnetic optical traps that atomic physicists use to study atoms or simulate exotic states of matter. Currently, the calibrations for these systems are done manually, and it takes a long time to fully set up a system to run an experiment. I wanted to help automate that process,” says McVay.

Each year, the Georgia Center coordinates over 200 volunteers, including graduate students, faculty, and industry professionals, who serve as judges at GSEF, interviewing exhibitors, evaluating research, and selecting award winners. The fair aims to recognize students for their achievements and prepare them to succeed in an increasingly complex and highly technical world by becoming problem solvers, critical thinkers and reflective learners. Judges help Georgia’s youth develop the skills and confidence to pursue scientific inquiry by showing interest in and evaluating their work.

“Competitions like GSEF are crucial to our state’s economic vitality. Nurturing our future workforce to be well-educated in STEM fields and innovation will equip tomorrow’s leaders with the skills and creativity to drive progress and change in our communities,” says Laura Brewer, GSEF director and Georgia Center Office of Academic Special Programs manager.

Volunteer judges, like Dr. Manish Mishra and Eleanor Schut, come from all over Georgia and serve at the fair for various reasons but seem to all leave impressed.

“I’m in awe of the brilliance displayed by these young minds. I hope to continue coming here for the next 20 years because my main goal is to encourage and nurture these budding scientists. We need more students in STEM, and by fostering their passion for science, we’re shaping a brighter future for society,” says Mishra, associate professor at the Mercer University School of Medicine.

Schut, a biology instructor at the University of North Georgia, said she’s energized by the students’ enthusiasm and learns from their work.

“Last year, I learned a method for preserving jack-o’-lanterns from some students’ projects, and we successfully applied it this Halloween. Moments like these remind me of the profound impact young minds can have on our learning journey. GSEF is truly inspiring,” says Schut.

The Georgia Center’s Office of Academic Special Programs coordinates a variety of programs that engage Georgia’s pre-collegiate students in historical and scientific research, including GSEF, the Northeast Georgia National History Day, and the Georgia Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. Students qualify for GSEF by advancing from affiliated regional fairs across the state each year.

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