Students' knowledge on display at 45th state fair

Science implies a system or sense of order.

But Oliver Huang, a ninth-grader from Butte, may have the most appropriate project for the 45th Montana Science Fair being held at the University of Montana on Monday and Tuesday.

The subject of Huang's project's is chaos. The actual title is "Chaos: Repetitive Geometry With Disturbances."

And with more than 700 entries in grades six through 12, the maze of science project exhibits and the buzz of scientific chatter from the participants, lent a feeling of chaos to UM's Adams Center on Monday afternoon.

The 700-plus entries are the most in the history of the Montana Science Fair, and 200 more than last year, according to assistant director Linda DeMinck, a UM computer science professor. The fair is sponsored by UM, the UM Excellence Fund and Missoula Exchange Club.

On Monday, the projects were evaluated by 145 judges. Winners will be announced at an awards ceremony at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at the University Theater. Students in grades nine through 12 compete in 14 categories, ranging from biochemistry to mathematics and space sciences. Students in grades six through eight compete in physical and biological science categories within their respective grade levels.

The top two grand prize winners and the top grand prize team in the Division I high school category will receive gold medals and an expense-paid trip to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which will be held in Detroit May 7-13.

The state science fair is being held in conjunction with the fourth Montana Computer Fair, which is a competition for students in grades six through 12 in

12 computer-related categories.

Both fairs are open to the public from 8 to 11 a.m. Tuesday. The computer fair awards ceremony will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

This is the third state science fair in which Huang has participated, he said. He has won first prize in the seventh- and eighth-grade categories.

Huang said he became interested in chaos theory from a book he picked up in a bookstore. His father, an engineering professor at Montana Tech, helped him set up some computer models to demonstrate his hypothesis.

In a nutshell, Huang said, his project explains chaos through pictures, called fractals, generated on a computer screen.

"Parts of fractals can't be predicted very well," he said. "But sometimes they repeat themselves, and most have symmetry in them."

The first judge to scrutinize Huang's project was Dick Lane, a UM mathematics professor who has been a judge at the Montana Science Fair since 1974.

Much of the learning process for students participating in the science fair involves learning what other people already have done, Lane said.

"The educational validity of that," he said, "is that you get your own ideas in the middle, and then you slide from doing what others told you to, and suddenly you're doing your own stuff."

Teachers around the state often attend the science fair with their students, Lane said. In the fair orientation sessions, conducted by UM faculty, the teachers are encouraged to get students to do projects based on their own ideas, rather than by rote.

Over the years, Lane said, he has seen a trend toward more original involvement by students in their projects, "rather than, 'I was told to do this.' "

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