News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 26, 2013

STEM students show off skills at camp

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The label on a bottle of potassium gluconate tablets says that it promotes heart health. On the back label is a claim that the nutritional supplement also helps with the nervous system.

Those are claims that interested Abi Snyder of Marshall High School when she and a team of students in the Operation Catapult program at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology decided to look at the physiological response of crayfish to a variety of compounds.

Snyder and 160 other incoming high school seniors from 28 states and four countries have spent the past three weeks at the Terre Haute campus exploring projects in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. On Thursday, the students demonstrated some of their projects in events such as walk-on-water races, a trebuchet competition and hovercraft races. The student teams will make formal project presentations today.

Peter Coppinger, professor of aquatic biology and biomedical engineering, said students in his lab came up with some ingenious solutions to problems they were given. And they all did it on a budget of less than $50 while working as a group.

Snyder said she knows people who use dietary supplements regularly, so it seemed reasonable to test supplements that are not approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration — but which are available in the pharmacy area of many grocery stores — to what effect those compounds have on the body, if any.

Using a crayfish — a small aquatic creature commonly found in creeks and ponds — Snyder and her team were able to monitor the biological effects of the potassium gluconate. Because the crayfish has a simple heart and circulatory system, she said, it was easy to hook up the creature to an electrocardiogram.

The team found that the compound slowed the crayfish’s heart rate.

Next, the team tested sodium chloride on the crayfish, but did not get the same result. So they concluded that it was the potassium in the compound that was slowing the creature’s heart rate.

“We couldn’t find any reason that it helps,” Snyder said of the products claim, “but we could see a dramatic slow down in the heart rate.”

 But whether the product is beneficial — as the label claims — depends upon the person ingesting the compound, and the reason for doing so. People often take supplements based on the labels, but there often hasn’t been testing to verify the claims.

“A lot of people don’t want to believe it unless you can show them data,” she said, noting that the crayfish experiment gave some valuable evidence. “A lot of people have no idea what goes on when they’re taking these pills.”

Other teams in the biomedical engineering projects tested the effects of energy drinks and essential oils.

Snyder said she is not sure what educational path she wants to take after graduating from Marshall High School — art or engineering — so she decided to check out Operation Catapult to see where her interests can take her.

Other students from the Wabash Valley participating in this session of the program include Brad Drake of Farmersburg and North Central High School; Megan Foster of Clinton and South Vermillion High School; Brandon Kelts of Paris, Ill., and Paris High School; Talon Lund of Brazil and Northview High School; and Enock Momanyi of Terre Haute and South Vigo High School.

Momanyi said he has been looking forward to participating in Operation Catapult for a long time. His other brother went through the program, and his father is an RHIT professor.

He chose the human-powered refrigerator project, which uses a generator and an alternator to send power to a battery that runs a small refrigerator. Momanyi and his team engineered the project to use bicycles pedaled by team members to produce the energy needed to cool a can of soda pop.

“It looked like the most interesting project to do,” Momanyi said of project selection. “I don’t know anything about refrigeration.”

But he and his team split up the engineering tasks and realized that it takes two bicycles to produce enough energy to power the fridge. And, it also takes a steady flow of energy.

Momanyi said his future plan is to attend RHIT and study computer science or software design.

Patsy Brackin, professor of mechanical engineering and director of Operation Catapult for the past 10 years, said the youths accepted into the summer program are among the brightest students in their home schools, and they have to think creatively to create their projects for less than $50.

Of course, a lot of recycled materials and parts are leftover from previous programs, but the students have to figure out what they need to create things such as hovercraft and trebuchets.

“They use resources on hand, and when they go into the workplace, they will be able to use that skill of taking what’s on hand, and they will be able to save their company money,” Brackin said.

But one of the best stories, she said, was of a home-schooled student who received a lot of direction from the RHIT staff on classes that he needed for college. He later returned as a catapult counselor and then a project mentor.

“We have some students come here with a lot of knowledge but not a lot of confidence,” Brackin said. “Or we have some who need more direction and preparation to go to college.”

Also working with the students for the third year has been a team of Chinese university students who serve as project mentors while taking a high-speed digital design course on campus.

Operation Catapult has been active at RHIT for 47 years, making it one of the oldest STEM programs in the country.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.