Upwards of 280 middle- and high-school students toting colorful scientific displays recently converged on the University of Colorado Denver campus, seeking scholarship, mentorship and, of course, cold, hard cash.

Young minds from across the Denver-metro area joined in the 55th Annual Denver Metro Regional Science and Engineering Fair (DMRSEF), an event aimed at engaging youth in the science fields.

“This is so exciting for young scientists to interact with professionals,” said Meredith Tennis, PhD, an assistant professor in the CU School of Medicine (SOM). “It’s also a very rewarding experience. They can win money to help further their education or get more exposure to the sciences,” said Tennis, who has been a judge coordinator for the past 10 years.

Sponsors of the event include both CU Denver and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

Feeding curious minds

Students were split by grade into junior and senior groups, and their projects were divided into 14 categories, ranging from biological sciences to microbiology and materials sciences to physics and astronomy.

Students from across the Denver area competed in the annual DMRSEF.

In the microbiology category, Jocelynn King, an eighth-grader at Challenge School in Denver, wanted to know if antibiotics were present in the Cherry Creek Reservoir and Chatfield Reservoir. She took samples from each reservoir and tested them at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Her results were inconclusive, but she was hopeful to study this subject further. Her display was uniquely interactive, with small Petri dishes scattered in front of her poster, each filled with a paper version of her experiment.

“What stuck out to me was a young man looking at the buoyancy of eggs,” said Danielle Sansone-Poe, a student in the Master’s Program in Biomedical Sciences & Biotechnology in the CU Anschutz Graduate School. “He wanted to find a better way to gauge freshness. Although he didn’t find what he was looking for, you could really feel the passion behind his presentation. These future scientists are exactly what the field needs: a fresh take and a positive attitude.”

Scientists of the future

Students explained their experiments and findings to panels of expert judges, including CU students and faculty, as well as industry members. They used posters laid with pictures and text to help explain their process and answer questions.

Ranging from category “Best” to “Best in Show,” 28 projects were chosen to receive awards. Edwin Bodoni from Cherry Creek High School, Peyton Leyendecker from SkyView Academy, and Krithik Ramesh from Cherry Creek High School, won first, second and third place, respectively, in the senior division of “Best in Show.” They each received an all-expense paid trip to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh, Pa., as well as varying cash prizes.

“It’s so important to foster young scientists’ passion,” said Jon Kibbie, a fifth-year MD/PhD candidate in the CU SOM, who has judged the competition for two years in a row. “We need to pass the torch down to the next generation of scientists.”

A student explains his work to a judge in hopes of winning a top prize.

Being part of the event also offers CU students a glimpse of the future, said Sansone-Poe. “This is a great way to see what scientists of the next generation are interested in,” she said. “Elevating and encouraging our youth is not only fulfilling; it raises the overall quality of science.”

By hosting the event, CU Denver also offers youth a taste of campus life.

“This competition gives students from across Denver the chance to see and experience the CU Denver campus,” said Lin Browning, co-director of the DMRSEF and executive director of Area Health Education Center (AHEC). “We want to open students to the idea of college. They also get the great opportunity to interact with university faculty students and industry partners. They very well may shape their future research.”

CU student volunteers noted that they might be grooming their own future colleagues.

“I hope to have a lab of my own someday soon,” said Sansone-Poe. “These students will be the research assistants, PhD candidates and post-docs that I’ll work with. It’s never too soon to start preparing them for the challenges that all scientists face.”