Three Bangor High School seniors and an Orono High School sophomore are contenders in the Maine State Science Fair this year, the first in-person version of the competition since COVID forced it to go remote in 2020.
The Jackson Laboratory and the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance will host the event at Colby College in Waterville on Saturday. The competition draws public, private and parochial school students from across the state.
Ogechi Obi, a Bangor senior, has created a new kind of biodegradable plastic using cellulose nanofibers, a plant material that can be used to produce paper and is used in 3-D printing. She will be returning to the fair for her fourth time to demonstrate the new plastic.
The topic of sustainable alternatives to plastic first piqued Obi’s interest when she was in her first year of high school. In addition to her science expertise, the senior is also a sustainability advocate.
Her product can be used as a more durable alternative to single-use plastics like food packaging and grocery store bags, even though polyethylene — the most commonly used plastic — “has a 100-year head start,” Obi said.
Cellulose nanofibers can also be used in wound care to treat severe burns and for other applications beyond being an alternative to single-use plastics, Obi said. The possibilities are endless.
Obi said she has seen from her own work over the last four years and from scientific literature that “these natural polymers can be used to really solve a lot of our climate crisis problems.”
Sustainability and ways to reduce plastic use are also top of mind for Ruth White. The Orono High School sophomore developed a kind of biodegradable bandage for her contest entry, as she returns to the fair after participating last year.
“I thought about a way to decrease plastic waste, and I was thinking, a Band Aid seems small, but we use so many of them in our society, and they’re so important, with a lot of different research properties,” White said.
White made her bandages using wool and spices with antibacterial properties like thyme, basil and aloe, as well as honey. A mixture of flour and water acts as an adhesive glue.
She sourced all of the materials locally — the wool came from a local farm, and the flour was sourced from local grain.
“I wanted to see how these two compare in antibacterial properties and also whether it’s possible to make bandages from Maine materials,” White said. “I wanted to know if it was possible to use locally sourced stuff to make similar products that are made in large factories with lots of plastic.”
Like their classmate Obi, Bangor seniors Roland Ladd and Fritz Oldenburg are entering the fair with a product that they’ve been working on for more than a year. They developed a camera that they placed on top of a drone they built as juniors. They initially intended for the drone to serve as a supplemental pollinator in agricultural fields.
“We heard about agricultural drones that are used to spray fields and stuff,” Oldenburg said.
He cited a decline in the bee population as his and Ladd’s inspiration for developing the drone, which they named Phoebe, to act as a pollination substitute after mentoring from a teacher’s land surveyor spouse.
Phoebe’s pollination system was unsuccessful, however, so they switched gears to create this year’s entry.
“And so we’re like, ‘Well, why don’t we take another look at agriculture and see if there’s anything else we can use the drone for?’” Oldenburg said.
The two ended up developing the camera, which uses a computing system called Raspberry Pi, to take photos and monitor the health of pea plant leaves.
The camera images were accurate enough that they could give the viewer a better answer as to whether a plant was healthy than by looking at the pea plant with the naked eye, Ladd said.
The seniors’ experiences developing their science fair projects have hardened their resolve to continue studying science as the three prepare to graduate from Bangor High and head off to college in the fall.
Oldenburg will attend Tufts University’s School of Engineering, while Ladd will enroll at the University of Maine’s College of Engineering.
Obi has received several offers, including one from Princeton, but is waiting to commit to a college as she mulls potential careers in public policy and chemical engineering.