7 Discoveries That Started as School Assignments

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Some schoolwork is worth more than a good grade. The young students behind these assignments earned recognition from scientists, paleontologists, and mathematicians in the real world. Here are seven class projects where the effects were felt far beyond the classroom.

1. AN INSECTICIDE THAT’S NONTOXIC TO HUMANS

For a middle school science project, Simon Kaschock-Marenda discovered that a sweetener found in most grocery stores doubles as a nontoxic insecticide. With help from his dad, Drexel University biology professor Daniel Marenda, Simon gave artificial sweeteners to fruit flies raised in their home. Of all the groups they studied, the flies fed Truvia had the shortest lifespan (5.8 days compared to 38 to 51 days). Daniel realized the significance of their findings and conducted further experiments at his work lab. Along with his colleagues, he identified the ingredient responsible—erythritol—and published the work in the journal PLOS ONE. The chemical compound won’t be replacing all synthetic pesticides anytime soon, but for small-scale applications it could be a safer alternative.

2. A NEW WAY TO EXTEND THE LIFE OF HEARING AID BATTERIES

Minnesota teenager Ethan Manuell didn’t expect to make a major medical breakthrough when he was asked to make a science fair project. As he told USA Today, his main concern was getting a good grade. After receiving the assignment from his eighth grade science teacher, Mrs. Omland, Manuell started tinkering. Using materials he had at home—including old battery-operated toy bugs and the batteries from his hearing aid—he discovered a way to extend the lifespan of zinc hearing aid batteries by 85 percent.

Some hearing aid battery packages instruct users to remove the plastic tab on the back of the battery and let it sit for one minute. Manuell further tested this suggestion, allowing the tab-less batteries to sit for various amounts of time before testing their longevity in his vibrating toy bugs. He found that five minutes was the golden length of time needed to achieve maximum results.

The information is shared in doctor’s offices today. By using Manuell’s trick, hearing aid wearers can save an average of $70 a year on batteries.

3. INSIGHT INTO HOW BUMBLEBEES SELECT FLOWERS

A group of 8- to 10-year-olds from Blackawton Primary School in Blackawton, England may qualify as the youngest authors of a published scientific journal. The students conducted their research on the flower selection habits of bees in a local churchyard. The results, which they wrote up themselves, appeared in the respected Royal Society journal Biology Letters in 2010.

With their teacher, Dave Strudwick, and neuroscientist Dr. Beau Lotto as their mentors, the kids set up a color-coded, plexiglass box for bees to navigate. The puzzle contained two types of artificial flowers: one filled with sugar water and one with salt water. They discovered that “bumblebees can use a combination of color and spatial relationships in deciding which color of flower to forage from.” The findings suggest that bumblebees possess a more advanced awareness of their surroundings than some scientists give them credit for. Another takeaway from the study? “We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before,” the authors wrote.

4. THE DISCOVERY OF A BABY DINOSAUR FOSSIL

Kevin Terris couldn’t have asked for better luck during a field trip he took as a 17-year-old. While scanning the ground for fossils at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, the student spotted a baby dinosaur skull poking out of the dirt. Once the rest of the remains were uncovered, paleontologists concluded they belonged to the smallest and youngest duck-billed Parasaurolophus dinosaur ever recorded. They nicknamed the specimen “Joe.”

Terris and his classmates visited the dig site as part of a paleontology program at their California high school. The field had already been surveyed by experts when the students arrived, which makes the discovery even more impressive. After receiving his high school diploma, Terris went on to study geology in college. Joe, meanwhile, is on display at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California, after providing important insight into the development of duck-billed dinosaurs.

5. A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF ANEMONE BIOLOGY

Getting out of the classroom and into nature led to a major discovery by middle school students at the Dedham School in Maine. Under the guidance of Vanderbilt University scientists via Skype, the students conducted an experiment on metridium (a type of sea anemone) they collected from the harbor. Their research revealed the presence of sulfilimine bonds in the creature’s structure, an observation that had never been made before.

While the bond is found in complex animals like mammals, it’s less common in simpler organisms. The students hypothesized that the quality is what prevents some creatures from regrowing limbs, while other animals like starfish are able to. “You see lots of war heroes that come back and they have a severed arm or a severed leg and so we can’t grow it back and we think maybe this has to do with that our cells are too bonded together: Maybe we need to loosen it up,” Dedham student Braedan Ward told WABI. Whether or not their hunch is proven correct, it's clear the budding scientists are asking the right questions.

6. AN ALTERNATIVE TO PASCAL’S TRIANGLE

When solving binomial expansions for his high school math class in 2013, sophomore Brock Brown could have used Pascal’s triangle like the rest of his classmates. Instead, he invented a brand-new theorem that allowed him to get homework done faster. His method eventually caught the attention of Ben Moulton, the math professor teaching Brock’s mother at Utah Valley University at the time. Moulton described the formula, now known as “Brock’s Theorem,” as an “elegant and simple” alternative to more common binomial theorems. The professor offered to develop a proof for Brock and later submitted it to the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges. Moulton and Brown presented their work at an Anaheim, California math conference in 2013.

7. A POTENTIAL CANCER TREATMENT

In Dr. Robert Pergolizzi’s class at Bergen's Science and Technology Magnet School in New Jersey, students are given a lot of freedom. "There are no tests in this class, no homework," Pergolizzi told New Jersey News 12. Their only assignment is developing an original research project. Freshman student Joshua Meier took that prompt and ended up discovering a possible treatment for cancer.

Meier began his research by looking into the causes of rapid aging in artificially-generated stem cells. He discovered that synthetic stem cells are missing a third of their DNA, which makes them age faster. By controlling mitochondrial DNA deletion levels, he was able to slow the aging process.

As a junior, Meier used his findings to come up with a potential cancer treatment. Instead of slowing aging in stem cells, he realized he could reverse the process to expedite aging in cancer cells and stop them from growing. The research earned him second place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

A Handful of Lucky College Students Live With Senior Citizens in This Minnesota Mansion

vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images
vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images

When Winona State University student Ashley McGaw skateboards home after a long day of nursing classes, she’s greeted by an unusual entourage: the elderly residents of a Minnesota assisted living facility called Senior Living at Watkins.

According to WFAA, McGaw and several other college kids live there with 45 seniors as part of Winona Health’s “Students in Residence" program, in which students volunteer their time with residents in exchange for discounted rent. For 10 volunteer hours per month, it’s $400, and doubling your hours drops it to just $200 per month. Not only does that include meals, it also gives students the chance to forgo the usual college dorm building for the stately glamour of an old mansion—their rooms are located in the historic Watkins Manor House, which is attached to the assisted living facility.

For freshman Joel Olson, the opportunity seemed like a no-brainer.

“'All you have to do is spend some time with some really nice people?'” he remembers thinking, according to KARE 11. “Of course!”

As for how they spend that time, it’s up to the students. Graduate student Laura Jensen hosts weekly crocheting sessions, nursing student Hanna Rottier offers manicures, and bulletin boards advertise free tech support.

And, in return for sharing their time and talents, students get to experience the familial affection and grandparental concern that’s often scarce on a college campus.

“They all mother me,” Jensen tells KARE 11 about the members of her crocheting club. “They take care of me.”

Winona Health assisted living director Cheryl Krage sees evidence of this, too.

“I hear residents wondering how the students are doing with their studies,” Winona Health assisted living director Cheryl Krage tells KARE 11. “‘Are you eating enough, are you getting enough fruits and vegetable[s]?"

According to the program page on Winona Health’s website, the program is especially beneficial to students looking to enter the healthcare industry, whether that’s medical school, nursing, social work, rehabilitative therapy, or even music therapy.

It also keeps senior citizens connected to the next generation in a deeper way.

“Helps us stay young – ger,” senior resident Diane Sheldon told KARE 11.

[h/t WFAA]

Le Double Fond Just Became France’s First Official School For Magicians

fergregory/iStock via Getty Images
fergregory/iStock via Getty Images

At night, Le Double Fond is a charming Parisian bar where the whole family can enjoy bites and beverages with a side of magic tricks. During the day, however, the venue transforms into a school for the next generation of magicians.

Though Dominique Duvivier and his daughter Alexandra have been training students by day and entertaining patrons by night since founding the establishment in 1988, they just achieved a new level of status: France’s Ministry of Labor has recognized Le Double Fond as an official magic academy.

According to Reuters, the certification elevates the institution to the level of other performing arts schools and legitimizes it as a form of post-high school education. For 18-year-old Thomas Bioret, the prospect of a diploma was the reason he decided to enroll in the three-month program instead of continuing on a path to becoming a professional croupier.


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Before joining Le Double Fond (which translates to “The False Bottom”), Bioret practiced magic in his spare time and even organized high school productions. Now he spends 35 hours a week in the basement of the restaurant learning magic tricks, the history of magic, practical management skills, and more.

“It’s really engrossing—you don’t notice the day go by,” Bioret told Reuters. “Sure, it’s 35 hours a week with lots of travel, lots of homework, but the time passes at crazy speed.”

With Le Double Fond's new standing as a government-recognized institution comes opportunities for public funding, which will hopefully help alleviate the financial burden on aspiring magicians who can’t afford to pay for the three-month course, which costs a little over $16,500.

Looking to learn a little magic without moving to Paris? Here are 15 magic tricks you didn’t know you could do.

[h/t Reuters]

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