Sarah Tang, a senior at Fairview High School, poses in front of her project poster Feb. 20 at the Corden Pharma Regional Science Fair at the Glenn Miller Ballroom at the University of Colorado Boulder. She won second place for best overall project, as well as first place in the Earth and space sciences category, in the recent Colorado Science and Engineering Fair. (Courtesy photo)

A fascination with space and artificial intelligence led Summit Middle School eighth grader Molly Arthur to develop a science fair project to try to create a more efficient way to find exoplanets.

To solve the problem of the large amounts of computing power and time it takes to run those AI search programs, she used singular value decomposition from linear algebra to see if she could improve their accuracy and efficiency. Her project also required creating and running multiple computer programs.

While the accuracy stayed the same in her results, she saw a significant increase in efficiency, greatly reducing the amount of time required.

“I love seeing problems or issues that the scientific and global community are facing and finding creative solutions to them,” she said. “I also love how scientific experiment doesn’t always have the answer you would expect. One of my favorite parts of science is coming up with a hypothesis and then doing the experiment and figuring out you were wrong and then figuring out why that it is.”

Molly’s project won first place overall in the junior division in the recent virtual Colorado Science and Engineering Fair.

Molly Arthur, an eighth grader at Summit Middle School, poses in front of her project poster Feb. 20 at the Corden Pharma Regional Science Fair at the Glenn Miller Ballroom at the University of Colorado Boulder. She won first place for best overall project in the recent Colorado Science and Engineering Fair.(Courtesy photo)

While regional science fair winners were able to compete in the state fair virtually, the International Science and Engineering Fair planned for May in California was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Organizers noted they decided against switching to a virtual fair because too many affiliate fairs had been canceled and logistical challenges around language, time zone and technology wouldn’t allow for an equitable judging experience.

That means Fairview High School senior Sarah Tang, who won second place for overall best project in the senior division at state, won’t have the chance to compete at the international level with her project, which determined the orbit of a potentially hazardous asteroid.

She said the cancellation was disappointing but understandable, adding she’s glad she had the opportunity to compete virtually at the state level. Along with second place for overall best project, she won first place in the senior Earth and space sciences category in the state competition.

“I really enjoy science fairs because I think they are great outlets to share all types of research with both the public and professionals in the field,” she said. “I have also been able to make incredible friends and meet inspirational mentors through science fairs.”

For her project, she collected data as part of the Summer Science Program in Astrophysics and developed Python programs to project the trajectory of a potentially hazardous asteroid for the next 12 million years. If the 1.8-kilometer asteroid hit Earth or a spacecraft, it would do significant damage, she said.

“It’s important to update our understanding of these bodies, as they pose a threat to Earth and spacecraft,” she said.

The biggest challenge, she said, was that asteroid orbit projections aren’t widely studied, making it difficult to find comparisons.

While the next level of competition is canceled, she is continuing her work with the goal of generalizing her programs to make them applicable to the study of any Earth-orbiting asteroid. She’s also planning to study astronomy at Columbia University in the fall.

Other local students who received first-place awards at state were Fairview High juniors Sierra Zeller and Helena Harezlak in behavioral and social sciences, Peak to Peak Charter eighth grader Anjana Radha in chemistry and biochemistry, Monarch High junior Cooper Hanley and seniors Liam Barnes and Cosmo Mitchell in medicine and health, Peak to Peak eighth grader Megan Wagner in energy, Friends School sixth grader Chloe Pennington in microbiology and molecular biology, and Peak to Peak senior Eleanor Gentry in physics.

Altogether, 21 Boulder Valley projects placed in the top three or earned an honorable mention in individual categories at the state fair, as did two projects from Boulder’s private Friends School, one project from Longmont’s Flagstaff Charter Academy and one project by a Lafayette home-schooled student.

Three projects at Boulder Valley’s regional science fair also qualified for the international fair. The projects were by Fairview’s Sierra Zeller and Helena Harezlak, Fairview’s Jason Cui, and Monarch’s Liam Barnes, Cooper Hanley and Cosmo Mitchell.

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