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2019 STEM Fair winners

STEM Fair winners John Watson, Phillip Neff and Loulou Neff sit with Elko High School biology teacher Kristin Birdzell as they register for the International Science and Engineering Fair. The winners, announced March 13, received $850 in cash prizes and the chance to compete in Phoenix in May. 

ELKO – What do a robot mouse, chicken feathers and a folding walker all have in common? They are the grand prize winners in the 37th annual Elko County STEM Fair.

Senior John Watson, along with sophomore Loulou Neff and freshman Phillip Neff — all Elko High School students — were awarded cash prizes for their projects and the opportunity to compete at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair on May 12-17 in Phoenix, Arizona.

The grand prize winners’ projects seemed to encompass the range of elements of the STEM Fair with the students conducting experiments in the fields of science, technology and engineering. Some projects came from “what ifs,” while others were ideas born out of pure curiosity.

Robotic mouse takes first

Watson, the first place grand prize winner, said he was inspired by watching micromouse competitions, leading him to want to try his hand in computer engineering, which is his career goal.

He created an algorithm that “deleted” the dead ends within a maze for a more efficient path, and honed down the robot mouse’s movements down to the millisecond.

“The difference between one millisecond and two milliseconds could be the difference between it going straight and it zipping off,” Watson said.

To get it precise, Watson spent “lots of man hours” writing code, and enduring “lots of trial and error.”

However, all that hard work paid off, with a $300 cash prize and a trip to Arizona coming up in less than two months.

“Programming that thing was so tedious,” Watson said. “I’m happy that it paid off.”

Neff family winners

For the second year in a row, Loulou Neff was named second place grand prize winner and a $250 cash award for her project on using chicken feathers to reinforce concrete. Her younger brother, Phillip, came in third with $200 for modifying a folding walker to lift a disabled person from a sitting position. Last year, their older brother Peter took second place for a continuation on a ball-chain fountain.

With so many STEM Fair wins coming from one family, it seems that the Neffs enjoy science and have a natural curiosity for exploring the world around them.

“I would say it runs in the family,” Loulou Neff said. “We like science. We like to investigate problems and perform experiments.”

At last year’s STEM Fair, Loulou experimented with poultry chicks to discover their favorite color. This year, Loulou took the livestock theme in a different direction to find out if there was a way to recycle the abundant amount of chicken feathers that comes from butchering chickens on their ranch in Ruby Valley.

“There are so many we don’t know what to do with them,” Loulou Neff said. After researching some ideas, she discovered that feathers are being used in bio-plastics, paper, insulation and even ground into meal as supplements for livestock. But then, she thought, what if they could be used to strengthen concrete?

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“The feathers did strengthen the concrete, but not as much as steel, glass or PVA fibers,” Loulou explained. Although she feels confident she could perfect her hypothesis, she has ideas for a different project next year.

Phillip Neff also feels his modified walker could go to the next level. Designed to give handicapped people who fall down a lift to their feet, the walker still needs some work, he said.

Inspired by his older sister who has a form of muscular dystrophy, Phillip said his walker could lift her to a standing position.

“She enjoyed this,” Phillip said. “She was very happy I was doing something for her.”

It’s not perfect yet, but Phillip explained he is already thinking of ways to improve the walker for other disabled people.

“I know that I can definitely take it farther with more modifications, make it stronger and make it easier for a person to hold on to,” he said.

Phillip said he wasn’t expecting to win third place, but that he received advice to prepare for the judge’s interviews by his brother Peter, who did not enter a STEM project this year.

The Neff family has two more siblings coming up behind Phillip, and Loulou said it is possible that the STEM Fair has not seen the last of the Neffs participating in future competitions.

“I think they are probably watching us do the STEM Fair,” Loulou said. “I think it will definitely be something they are interested in.”

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Courts, K-12 schools & Spring Creek reporter

Staff writer for the Elko Daily Free Press

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