Super Girls

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Plainview science students top competition

From left: Alyssa Iryami and Audrey Shine of the SuperSilk Team from Plainview Old-Bethpage JFK High School.

Two Plainview students spun silk into scientific progress, netting victory at the Spellman High Voltage Electronics Clean Tech Competition earlier this month.

Alyssa Iryami and Audrey Shine of the SuperSilk Team from Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School earned first place, along with its $10,000 grand prize, in the competition hosted by Center for Science Teaching & Learning (CSTL) at Stony Brook University.

The Plainview students, the lone entrants from Long Island, beat out more than 230 others from the U.S. and 26 countries from around the globe with their Green Project, “Utilization of Bombyx mori in the Production of Polymeric Graphene Enhanced SuperSilk.”

In other words, the young scientists figured out that when you feed graphene to silkworms, you can produce a “SuperSilk” that could potentially be used as a filter for water, air and many other applications.

“We are so honored to have been a part of the Clean Tech Competition finals in 2017,” said Iryami. “Winning first place was a breathtaking moment and I am so ecstatic and overjoyed that our work was recognized.”

“Meeting people from the Philippines and Singapore has been amazing,” added Shine. “It has been such a journey and a long year since September and we cannot believe we came this far.”

Team leader, research coordinator and POB-JFK teacher Marylou O’Donnell said that while her students were confident in their preparation, the competition was indeed fierce.

The winning Plainview students (center) with their first place award and the other student finalists in the competition.

“We felt ready, until we saw the prototype devices produced by the other teams. The level of engineering was incredibly complex and we started to worry,” she said. “These girls have been working on this project for a year, so they were prepared. The only concern we had was the prototype filter created specifically for Clean Tech out of the SuperSilk. We hoped it would work when they demonstrated it for the judges and it did.”

O’Donnell described the moment of victory as “amazing, joyful, poignant” and said that the girls plan to continue to refine the idea of using SuperSilk as a filter, not only for water, but possibly clots in blood and as a scaffold in the body for tissue regeneration.

“For now I hope they just enjoy their moment in the spotlight,” she said.

CSTL director Dr. Ray Ann Havasy said Plainview’s impressive team was chosen as the winners because they had an original idea that was well supported by the prototype of the filter.

“It really works,” said Havasy. “It had simple, inexpensive water filtration system for places where water quality might be doubtful.”

Havasy, a scientist from Port Washington, said the competition is a great place for young scientists to converge because it involves creativity and innovation. Students meet each other and discuss their innovations around the same theme—how each team solved the challenge is different, but they all accomplish the same thing.

“It is important for schools to encourage STEM education and projects among their students because our nation desperately needs STEM career focused people,” said Havasy. “Seven out of 10 jobs that are open are STEM related. In a survey of students who took the international science and math exams that showed those wanting to pursue STEM careers, it revealed interest among 73 percent from Singapore, 71 percent from India, 43 percent from Finland and 8 percent from the U.S. Even though schools have STEM programs, STEM is not embraced by communities, including parents.”

Though in some communities—like Plainview, there seems to be hope for the future. O’Donnell said at POB-JFK, they are fortunate to have a school board, administration and faculty that supports experiences such as this competition and actively encourages scientific learning.

“Learning how to be a researcher is unlike any class/skill a student learns in high school,” she said. “It requires a forward-thinking community to understand that it is a messy business, with fits and starts. That requires patience and time to figure things out. I am also blessed to have colleagues in the science department that I can refer the students to when they need advice or equipment that we don’t have in the research room.”

And when it comes to the scientific prowess and ultimate potential of Iryami and Shine, the sky truly is the limit.

“I have been proud of these young women since the beginning of the project,” said O’Donnell. “They have taken an idea and followed it through beyond any of our expectations. They were gracious winners and spent subsequent days thanking all of the teachers, the fair sponsors and the scientists who helped them determine things outside of our high school’s ability. I know that their parents and grandparents have aided in acquiring materials, raising the silkworms, driving them around. It truly does take a village to create amazing young people.”

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