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Students share knowledge at science fair

Machaon Shoemaker, left, gives five to his father, Paul Shoemaker, Saturday at the Southeastern New Mexico Regional Science and Engineering Fair in the Campus Union Ballroom at Eastern New Mexico University. Machaon, a sixth-grader at P.R. Leyva Elementary in Carlsbad, claimed a $100 cash prize and first place in the electrical and mechanical engineering category.

PORTALES — A $4 cardboard display and a few slices of Styrofoam turned out to be a great investment for Machaon Shoemaker.

Shoemaker, a sixth-grader at Carlsbad's P.R. Leyva Elementary, was one of many who turned their hypotheses into honors during the Southeastern New Mexico Regional Science and Engineering Fair, held Saturday in the Campus Union Ballroom at Eastern New Mexico University.

The fair is one of seven held throughout the state, with berths to the state fair available in 15 categories.

The 12-year-old Shoemaker, whose name frequently gets butchered due to its unusual spelling — it's "muh-kay-on," but announcers called him "may-shon" and he's even got "mace-ee-on" before — claimed first place in the electrical and mechanical engineering category.

When asked about the experience, Machaon didn't have much to say.

"He's playing it cool, but I think he's over the top," said his father, Paul Shoemaker.

Ask him about his project, though, and Machaon opens up. He wondered what shape of wing gives an airplane the best lift. To test, Machaon created different shapes out of Styrofoam, then hooked them up individually to a wooden structure at a 29-degree angle — similar to that of a plane taking off. The structure kept the wings from moving horizontally but allowed for vertical lift when met with a simulated gust of wind.

"We had started with a fan, but it didn't have enough power," he said. "So then we went to a wind blower."

Fair Director Ken Cradock said participants are judged on originality and enthusiasm, along with how well they apply their understanding of science to the project.

The first-place earned Machaon $100 and other prizes, in addition to one of the fair's 40 slots for the state science fair to be held the last weekend of March at New Mexico Tech — coincidentally, where his father graduated from college.

Students can also earn their way to an international competition May 13-18 in Pittsburgh. The state fair sends four participants, Cradock said, while the regional sends two exhibitors and two observers.

"The observers do everything the participants do except show their project," Cradock said, "the idea being to get all the interactions and see what it takes to get a project up to that standard."

The competition is open to grades 6-12, but only half a dozen of the participants come from the high school ("senior") division, Cradock said.

An informal walk-through of the 90-plus projects revealed no baking soda and vinegar volcanoes, but there were plenty of concepts explored, including:

  • The "birthday paradox," which states that a list of 366 random people has a 100 percent chance of at least two people having matching birthdays (not counting Leap Day) — and that it's a 99 percent chance when the population drops to 57 and a 50 percent chance when it's 23 people.
  • How hip-hop music elevates the heart rate and classical music slows it.
  • A fast way to cool a can of soda is to place it in the freezer, in a bowl of water and ice.
  • A sound wave could slow a tsunami.
  • First-graders have trouble distinguishing between candy and medicine.

The experiments may lead to quick financial awards, or to calendar-year trips, but Cradock said higher success can lead to higher rewards.

"You go on to internationals, we're talking full-ride scholarships," Cradock said. "These awards are $70,000, $80,000. You get contacts with future employers."

The fair featured 24 competitors from Clovis schools — 11 receiving state berths — and no participants from Portales schools.

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