Woodward students make great show of science

Woodward Middle School seventh grader Hannah Stuart didn’t mind her brother’s preference for fast music – except when he sat behind the steering wheel.

“Ben always listens to fast-beat music while he drives and it’s pretty loud,” Stuart said, “so I wondered: is it safe? Should I be uncomfortable?”

Stuart decided to conduct an experiment to find out if music was a distraction for teen drivers.

Stuart’s exploration of the potential dangers of fast music was not just another assignment for Woodward science teacher Joyce Nishimura.

It also became Stuart’s exhibit at the seventh grade science fair, which Woodward holds annually at the end of November.

Stuart lined up five male and five female subjects for her experiment.

“That was fun,” Stuart said, “because they were all my brother’s friends and they are really nice.”

To construct her experiment, Stuart says, first she formulated her question: To what extent does different contemporary music affect different reaction times for drivers?

Then, she researched ear sensitivity and the mechanics of hearing.

Next, Stuart researched the history of the science of reaction, finding out in the process that the field’s pioneer was 19th century scientist Frans Cornelis Donders.

Stuart found several “reaction time” web sites that were interactive; site visitors were shown a sign directing him or her to press or not to press a button on the screen. The site provided instant feedback on reaction times.

Stuart tailored one such site to her experiment.

Her father, a Microsoft engineer, helped her hitch a mouse to a home-made “reaction button.”

Stuart says she wanted to have the subject’s hand move from screen to button to duplicate the driving motions of moving a hand or foot to brake, shift or steering wheel.

She offered the subjects three music choices – a slow-beat number with just 66 beats per minute, “My Everything” by 98 Degrees; a moderately paced song at 100 beats “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus; and a fast-beat piece at 152 beats “Paper Cut” by Lincoln Park.

Stuart formulated her hypothesis that whatever speed of music the subject usually listened to would produce the fastest reaction time.

What she found, however, was that reaction times were best with music within the mid-range of 100 beats.

She discovered that the worst reaction times were produced by listening to no music at all.

“I don’t know why no music was the worst,” Stuart said. “It might be that hearing rhythm helps people coordinate better.”

More important than having a particular hypothesis borne out, says Stuart’s science teacher, is a student’s increased understanding of the scientific method.

Posing a question and constructing an experiment to find the answer helps students think clearly, Nishimura believes.

Nishimura has been assigning science fair projects as long as she has been teaching.

“That’s 29 years,” Nishimura said. “Although, In the 1970s, science fairs were unpopular for a few years, because they were considered too competitive, I think they are beneficial, especially considering all the technology these students will have to understand as adults.

“Today, I tell students that you can’t be a citizen of the world without science; you can’t understand how to solve problems unless you know how to think scientifically.”

Woodward science fair is less about competition, Nishimura says, than walking students through all the stages of an experiment and both written and oral presentations.

About three hundred Woodward students each year present work to 80 judges – not necessarily scientists themselves. More than a third of the young scientists are recognized with awards that recognize the quality of visual, oral and written presentations.

Projects range from surveys of differences in fingerprints to the longevity of long-lasting lipstick (tested with kleenex swipes).

Some experiments – like growing yeast in bread – turn up every year, Nishimura says. She notes that students love to survey their peers.

“This year I’ve stressed the analysis, the ‘why,’” Nishimura said. “In the sixth grade experiment, they get lots of parent help.

“In seventh grade they internalize the process more and it comes together for them – and that’s what makes the seventh grade science fair so much fun.

“It’s a great culmination of two months of student research and scientific investigation.”

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