Intel semifinalists on projects, education

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Fifty-three students from Long Island schools were named semifinalists in this year's prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition. Newsday asked several of the semifinalists to explain their projects and offer their thoughts about education. Here's a closer look.

Avigael SosnowikStella K. Abraham

High School for Girls,

Hewlett Bay ParkProject title: The consumption of negative and positive feelings: Film genre's effect on adolescent emotions

Her project:

Sosnowik's research was not for the faint of heart.

She used horror movies to explore coactivation, a theory that positive and negative feelings can occur simultaneously. The project exposed adolescents who either frequently watch, or avoid, horror movies to horror clips and then surveyed them.

The results, Sosnowik said, showed that those who frequently watch horror movies got the most pleasure when they were most afraid, supporting the theory of coactivation. For those who avoid horror movies, there was a negative relationship until a "detachment frame," a moment that tells viewers what they're seeing isn't real. Then, they experienced pleasure, too.

"I've always loved horror movies and have never really understood why, so I wanted to do a project on the motivation behind watching horror movies," said Sosnowik, 17.

Her take on education:

While her project was a bit "unconventional" for an all-girls religious school, Sosnowik said the administration was very supportive and helpful. She said her favorite subject is calculus, and she credits the school's math teacher, Mila Klahr, for making teens think.

"She never gives you an equation without showing the derivation behind it and how it builds on the theorems you already learned, so you really see the process," Sosnowik said.

She believes that today's schools place too much pressure on students to be involved in as many extracurricular activities as possible, in order to show diversity of interests to colleges.

"I think it's a given everyone in the world is interested in more than just one thing," she said. "I have other interests, but why can't I share those, in the small amount of free time I have, with family and friends?"

Nakul Gupta

Farmingdale High School

Project title: Employing siRNA to recruit KCNQ1 through microRNA pathways: Implications for Long QT Syndrome

His project:

The mysterious nature of cardiac arrest was the driving force behind Gupta's project.

Long QT Syndrome, a condition that can result in severe arrhythmia, occurs when a potassium channel, KCNQ1, is inhibited, resulting in a prolonged QT interval. The QT interval is the measure of time in a heart's electrical cycle that represents depolarization and polarization of the left and right ventricles.

Gupta hypothesized that repressing an inhibitor of KCNQ1 -- microRNA-133 -- could fix that interval.

To test his belief, he inserted a silencing RNA strand, or siRNA, into rat myocardium cells. "The inhibitor that causes the problems leading to Long QT was repressed, supporting the hypothesis," said Gupta, 17.

His take on education:

Gupta's favorite educator is science teacher Peter Macchia, who was his academic adviser but never taught him in an actual class.

"Mr. Macchia had an unbelievably unique excitement for almost everything," he said. "His enthusiasm was so transparent that it gave me more motivation to succeed."

Gupta also said that collaborative learning in class has been a particularly important tool for him. Many times, he believed he learned more from his peers than his teachers.

"Instead of wasting time during study halls, students can get tutored by peers who are strong in that subject," he said. "For example, an AP Chemistry student can tutor a struggling first-year chemistry student. The tutor is reinforcing his or her knowledge of the subject by teaching it, and the tutoree will indubitably improve."

Julia Zhuang

Great Neck North

High School

Project title: Analysis of Cascadia Episodic Tremor and Slip events using time-dependent displacement and strain-fields derived from GPS data

Her project:

Zhuang, 17, recalled periodically feeling small earthquakes during the four years she lived in Washington state, and was eager to learn more about crustal activity in that region.

Her project explored Episodic and Tremor Slips (ETS), a seismological phenomenon in which tectonic plates subtly move westward instead of eastward, within a western portion of the United States known as Cascadia. Strain-axes maps, which she said illustrate spatial directions and types of crustal deformation, have yet to be used in ETS analysis and could provide valuable insight, she determined.

"All ETS events were found to share some variation of the arrangement where pure latitudinal compression in the western part of the region lies adjacent to an area of pure extension to the east," Zhuang said.

Her take on education:

Great Neck North science teacher Alan Schorn is Zhuang's favorite teacher, she said, describing his ability to make classes engaging with demonstrations ranging from spinning bicycle wheels to sitting on a board of nails.

"He always encouraged the class to pour their blood, sweat and tears into every problem, to not give up when we failed to grasp the solution, and to exhaust all possible approaches we could think of before asking for the answer," she said.

To improve schools, Zhuang suggested increasing the difficulty and quality of math classes.

"At least in my experience, advanced classes in science, English and social studies generally became challenging enough to be interesting by 10th grade, if not earlier," she said. "The full potential for learning in math classes, however, was not really realized until 11th grade."

Corey Wald

Wellington C. Mepham High School in North Bellmore

Project title: The sky's the limit -- An investigation of cloud cover on Major League Baseball

His project:

Wald definitely hit a homer with his research project.

His work explored whether varying degrees of cloud cover during daytime baseball games favored batters or pitchers and what effect it had on fielders. He studied more than 5,000 Major League Baseball games from 2007 through 2010, using data from baseball-reference.com and the National Climatic Data Center, entering it all into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

"The overall results suggest clearer conditions tend to favor the pitcher in day games, while cloudier day games tend to favor the batter," said Wald, 17.

His take on education:

The teacher who has made the biggest impact on him, Wald said, is David Kommor, a Mepham research teacher whose goal is for teens to learn because they are "genuinely interested."

"One may think that having class at 7:30 a.m., the teacher would be less than 100 percent, being tired and unenergetic," Wald said. "Not Dr. Kommor, as he is Mepham's version of the Energizer Bunny. . . . He is always one of the first teachers in the building with a cup of coffee and smile on his face."

To improve today's schools, Wald suggests offering classes that are more aligned with students' various career interests -- such as bioengineering, pre-law and medicine, and teaching.

"It doesn't really make sense that high school students must take four years of English and history, but only two or three years of math and science in order to graduate," he said.

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