Students Take on the QuikSCience Challenge

Santa Monica High School’s team won first place in the ninth annual QuikSCience Challenge. More than 400 middle and high school students from around the world submitted 74 science project entries.
Richard Hoops

USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies staff members are busy escorting several hundred students from middle and high schools to the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island as part of their reward for participating in the 2012 QuikSCience Challenge.

The science competition is supported by Quiksilver, Inc. — the well-known producer and distributor of surfing apparel — the Quiksilver Foundation and the Wrigley Institute, housed in USC Dornsife.

In its ninth season, the QuikSCience Challenge included more than 400 students submitting 74 entries with many of those students attending a recognition event on April 5 at the Quiksilver headquarters in Huntington Beach. The competition has a range of awards, and each team that submits a complete project on time is offered a one-day trip to the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island.

“Every year we see increasing numbers of projects submitted,” said Lynn Whitley, director of Wrigley Institute’s pre-college educational program. “What’s particularly impressive is the noticeable improvement in the caliber of the projects. They’re getting better and better.”

The QuikSCience Challenge is meant to spark the interest of middle school and high school students in science and in marine and freshwater environments and to enhance the students’ leadership skills. Teams of up to six students choose an environmental issue and propose ideas for scientific studies and creative solutions with high school teams also writing research proposals. In addition, they organize a community service project and create a lesson plan that they teach to other students.

All teams receive a day-long trip to Catalina Island, but the first place prize for the winning high school and middle school teams, and their teachers or advisers, is a week-long expedition to the Wrigley Marine Science Center. The winning trip features treks to different parts of the island, visits to laboratories, snorkeling, kayaking and hiking. The second place prize for the high school and middle school teams is a weekend trip to the island.

The QuikSCience Challenge allows one school to submit entries from two teams, and the Challenge has grown so popular that some schools now run their own “semi-finals” to whittle down their multiple entries. This multi-team approach was started several years ago by Eric Harrington, a middle school teacher at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano. This year 12 schools ran semi-final competitions to select their two entries.

Santa Monica High School’s team won first place this year, and other “SaMoHi” teams won second place in 2010, first place in 2008 and the Best Community Service award in 2007. The Santa Monica team leader for all those awards, Benjamin Kay, won the Ocean Science Leadership “Early Career Award” from the QuikSCience Challenge in 2007.

In Santa Monica’s project, “Reducing Carbon Emissions,” students converted a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle into a zero-emission electric vehicle.

Second place in this year’s competition went to a team from Kamehameha High School in Hawaii, led by teacher Lea Parveen Arce. Their project examined the effects of fertilizer on algae growth. The Kamehameha teacher organized a team for the QuikSCience Challenge in 2010 and her students won first place that year.

Teams from Animo Charter Leadership High School in Inglewood also have had noteworthy success with the QuikSCience Challenge. They’ve won five awards since 2005, and the teacher who led those teams, Mark Friedman, won the Ocean Science Leadership “Formal Teaching Award” in 2005.

This year, the team from Animo won a different kind of prize — admission for one of its seniors to the USC freshman class of fall 2012. Crystal Juarez, 18, already is familiar with the QuikSCience Challenge and USC. She has been on the Animo teams for two years, and her teams have worked with the USC faculty, staff and students in the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI), a center supported by the National Science Foundation and led by Katrina Edwards, professor of biological sciences, earth sciences and environmental studies in USC Dornsife. As C-DEBI scholars, Juarez and her teammates incorporated C-DEBI research into their project for the QuikSCience Challenge for 2011 and won the award for “Best New Science in a Lesson Plan.”

For several years, USC graduate and undergraduate students have helped the many QuikSCience Challenge teams from middle schools and high schools, by serving as volunteer mentors. This year, 27 USC students worked with QuikSCience teams to provide scientific and technical guidance for their projects.

Whitley said the QuikSCience Challenge has attracted interest from other parts of the country.

“Even though we’re focused on California, people in other places hear about the challenge by word-of-mouth or by way of the Internet,” she said.

The challenge has come a long way over the past nine years, said Terri Bidle, QuikSCience program manager at the Wrigley Institute.

“We had entries from Hawaii and Guam — they’ve participated before — and we even had two teams from Idaho this year,” she said. “We’re getting closer to our dream of making the QuikSCience Challenge a national and international program.”