Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

When the Tidewater Science and Engineering Fair, scheduled for Saturday, March 14, at Old Dominion University, was cancelled due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, science teacher Victoria Sofianek and seven of her students banded together to submit the school’s entries online in the first “virtual fair” held in the event’s 51-year history. 

 “They’ve worked so hard,” Sofianek said. “I didn’t want to let them down.” 

At St. Mary Star of the Sea School, Hampton, Matthew Nguyen helps classmate Sophia Harris upload her science fair abstract and report on Friday, March 13. Due to the coronavirus, students submitted entries to Tidewater Science and Engineering Fair at Old Dominion University online.

Students at St. Mary have been working on their science fair projects since the beginning of the school year, Sofianek explained. In December, they presented their research before a panel of judges composed of parents and grandparents with careers in the sciences, after which seven of the students were selected to go on to the regional level. 

Sofianek asked those seven students to stay after school on Friday, March 13, the last day that school would be in session for the foreseeable future, so that she could video record their presentations and help them to upload their reports online.

They faced mishaps and unexpected challenges, but the group pulled together to help one another with the determination that the show must go on.

‘Action!’

“I was excited about going to the fair,” said eighth-grader Leila Ricks, as she set up her trifold board detailing the results of her report. “It’s comforting to be around kids your own age when you’re making a presentation.” 

Ricks explained that her project involved investigating the health of local waterways. 

She collected water samples from the Hampton River, Mill Creek and Buckroe Beach, she said, and then studied them through an inverted microscope, counting what she saw — plankton, zooplankton, microplastics and clothing fibers — in order to gauge the health of various areas around the Chesapeake Bay.  

“It would have been easier, I think, talking to the judges,” she said. “It will be different, just looking into a camera.”

Although they were a bit uncertain about presenting without feedback from a live audience, the students were naturals before the camera, making the filming the easiest part of the application process. 

First up was eighth-grader Brayden Green, who sought the answer to one of the sporting world’s age-old questions: Can more fish be caught with live or with artificial bait?

Sofianek held up her phone to begin recording, and Green immediately launched into his report.

“I chose this project because I love marine biology, and I love to fish,” he said. “My hypothesis was that more fish would go for the live blood worms since they have a more natural scent.” 

Ricks, too, was poised and confident before the camera, as she explained that she hoped her research would inspire people to limit their use of single-use plastic and develop biodegradable materials in the future. 

One benefit to filming their presentations, according to the students, was that their teacher was able to give them last-minute tips before the action call. 

“You don’t need notecards,” Sofianek told seventh-grader Nathan Ballard-Spitzer, as he prepared to deliver a report on the effects of magnetic propulsion on aircraft. 

“OK,” he agreed, setting them aside. 

“And don’t read your board.” 

“OK,” he said, adopting the three-quarter turn typical of newscasters, ready to address the camera. 

Internet sensations

Navigating YouTube, where the virtual science fair’s guidelines directed students to submit video entries, proved to be a challenge, but Sofianek managed to set up a channel for the class. 

“It makes you learn things quickly,” she said.   

Uploading the videos was even more problematic, but luckily, Sofianek had assistance from her teen tech guides Green and eighth-grader Matthew Nguyen. 

Nguyen volunteered to go last in delivering his report on Benford’s Law and natural disasters — one of the few projects entered in the math category — so that he could upload his classmates’ videos as Sofianek recorded. 

“There it is,” he said, once the first video appeared on the channel.

In a classroom next door, students began to gather to watch Nguyen’s progress on their phones. 

“We have two subscribers!” came a jubilant shout. 

“Now I suppose we have to think how we can monetize on this,” Sofianek said wryly, as Nguyen, eyes still intent on the screen, huffed a quiet laugh. 

Since all was going so well, the class took a break at around 4:45, right in time for a delivery of three large pizzas — all cheese, of course, as it was a Lenten Friday at a Catholic school. 

Experiencing, overcoming technical difficulties 

All that remained for the students to do was to submit their projects’ abstracts and research plans, along with photos of their trifold boards and links to their video presentations.

That’s when they began to hit snag after snag. 

“My photo is so blurred you can’t even read the board,” Green said. 

“Mine’s backwards,” eighth-grader Sofia Seely said. 

“I think I sent the wrong link,” Ballard-Spitzer said. 

Sofianek went from desk to desk endeavoring to troubleshoot. Six o’clock was approaching, and a line of cars containing waiting parents had begun to form outside the classroom windows. 

“I need an email address, but I don’t have one,” seventh-grader Lydia Burke said. 

“Use your mom’s,” her friend, seventh-grader Sophia Harris, suggested. 

Burke promptly got up and went to the window. 

“Mrs. Harris? Can you tell my mom I need her email address?” she called, proving that sometimes low-tech solutions are still the best. 

Soon, parents began to trickle into the classroom, curious as to how the work session was going. 

 “I told Lydia the she’s lucky to have such a good teacher,” said Michelle Territo, Burke’s mother. “Mrs. Sofianek could have just said, ‘Sorry, it’s been cancelled.’ She’s lucky to have someone willing to take this extra time for her.” 

Meanwhile, the students remained with their heads bent over their Chromebooks, reworking the steps in vain, as the atmosphere in the room grew tense and the clock ticked. 

It was then that Sofianek guided her students through one of the most important life lessons of all. 

“I’m going to call them and ask for help,” she announced, going out into the hall to call the organizers of the fair while the students persevered. 

In a few moments, she burst back into the room, her excitement infectious. 

“Guys! Guys! Guess what? We’re the only ones who have gotten this far!” 

The room burst into a wave of celebratory leaps and cheers; the students’ perspectives changed as they realized that even getting to this point was no small victory. 

“And we can’t even high-five, right?” Sofianek said. 

But that was all right; the students exchanged elbow bumps instead. 

After that, things went smoothly. 

There was only one more glitch. 

“Oh. I have to say I’m not a robot,” Burke said. 

“Say you’re not a robot,” Harris urged, as if cheering her classmate over the finish line of a race. 

Nguyen remained in the classroom until the end, making sure each of his classmate’s project packages were complete as, one by one, the students took their leave. 

On Monday, March 16, they began learning from home and may not gather as a class again for some time. 

Even for the tech generation, virtual reality is all well and good, they said, but it can’t replace the sense of camaraderie and fun found in working together with friends.