The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

Then and Now: Students Adapt Independent Research During COVID-19

Pau Anta’s molecular modeling, displaying the N and C termini of the spider silk protein. So far, Anta has been unable to produce a physical prototype for his 10th Grade Project due to COVID-19. (Courtesy of Pau Anta)

Independent research during distance learning:

Lab-oriented or hands-on independent research projects like the 10th Grade Project and Extended Essay (EE) usually take place on campus, with WIS students having access to help from teachers. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the switch to distance learning forced students to adjust to working from home.

Sophomore Eleanor Hawkins’ 10th Grade Project involves creating a computer program to test for heritable connective tissue disorders. Her original plan was to meet with WIS teachers to decide which coding language she would use to create her prototype. But having these meetings over Zoom made her feel less confident and more confused about which direction to take.

“I was originally going to make a website using Javascript. However, by the time I had learned enough of the language to start coding, it was the end of the year. This meant that I was unable to contact any teachers about meeting with them to discuss how to start programming,” Hawkins said.

10th-grader Pau Anta’s project consists of designing spider silk with electrical conductivity. Once produced, the silk would “be used in smart clothing, since an electric current can produce pressure sensors, stretch sensors, functioning buttons, and other circuits.”

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During distance learning, he didn’t make any changes to his prototype because he was mainly conducting research and designing the DNA digitally. However, he was also in Spain due to COVID-19 and didn’t “have access to equipment or community labs, so [he] likely [wouldn’t] be able to produce anything tangible until [he returned] to D.C.” Because of this, Anta doubted he would be able to finish the project in time for the December Project Fair.

Sophomore Nora Galizia is working to improve the efficiency of the metal baskets used to feed and collect tennis balls. Galizia’s plan involves creating “a basket with a frame made out of recycled metal laundry hangers. The sides of the basket will be filled with recycled plastic from water bottles to contain the balls, and the handles double as a stand.”

Like Anta, Galizia hadn’t started creating her prototype during distance learning, so she hadn’t experienced any difficulties. But if she was unable to use the Design Lab, she was unsure of how she’d gain access to necessary tools like a 3D printer, and would need to simplify her prototype. Although WIS allowed students to check out kits with simple tools from the Design Lab, Galizia was not allowed to borrow the high-tech equipment she needed.

Senior Clementine Rotsaert is doing a biology EE. By using a genetic expression database, she is analyzing whether gender plays a role in the severity of COVID-19 by taking a closer look at the expression of different proteins.

Originally, Rotsaert’s topic was a complex lab experiment which would’ve been both unreasonable and unsafe to conduct at home. Because of this, she had to spend her EE days coming up with a new topic, rather than starting her research.

Ultimately, Rotsaert decided to pursue a data-based EE, using existing data from a database rather than collecting her own through an experiment. “The amount of information on my topic was abundant because the entire scientific community was researching the same thing,” Rotsaert said.

12th-grader Riley Contee is also doing a biology EE. She is examining the “effect of radiation on the fermentation of three distinct strains of saccharomyces cerevisiae [yeast].” Unlike Rotsaert, Contee chose to do a simpler experiment, so she was able to conduct it by herself.

Contee’s experiment consisted of microwaving “yeast for different lengths of time and record[ing] the changes in glucose concentration and the amount of carbon dioxide produced.” While she had to adjust her topic slightly due to not having a carbon dioxide detection probe, it mainly stayed the same as her original concept.

Independent research during hybrid learning:

On September 15, Head of School Suzanna Jemsby announced that WIS would be switching to a hybrid learning model. The student body was divided into two cohorts, red and blue, and they would alternate weeks studying on campus and learning on Zoom.

Hawkins hasn’t attended school in person yet, which she hopes she will be able to do sometime in November. “If I were to return to school, [my 10th Grade Project] process might change slightly as I would have access to more potential participants in my program and be able to stop by my sponsor’s office if I have any questions,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins noticed that showing her project to family members has helped her “fix a few bugs and practice presenting my project,” so she’s interested in sharing it with more peers. She hopes that if she returns to school, she will be able to test her computer program on her classmates. However, she is unsure of how this would work with social distancing regulations in place.

Anta is still in Spain but thinks he will return to D.C. by December. In the meantime, despite Menorca, the island where he is staying, not having any community labs, he hopes to use the labs at the Polytechnic University of Madrid to start creating a prototype. However, since Spain has stricter regulations regarding genetic engineering than the US, he will have to wait to “get the DNA synthesized” so he can use it “to produce the spider silk protein.”

Although Galizia was unable to start building her prototype during distance learning, she will now be able to work in the Design Lab and use its equipment. Unlike Hawkins and Anta, she has chosen to physically attend school. Galizia plans to work on the prototype after school during her cohort’s in-person weeks.

Rotsaert has made no changes to her EE, despite moving into hybrid learning. “There is no way for me to turn my existing research into an experiment and I am way too far in to restart,” Rotsaert said.

Now that Contee is in hybrid learning, she could redo her experiment using a carbon dioxide detection probe or other equipment that she was missing beforehand. However, she thinks that this is unnecessary, mentioning that “with college applications and [Internal Assessments], redoing my experiment seems like a bit much when I have valid data.”

Other than Galizia’s 10th Grade Project, the switch to hybrid learning has had a minimal impact on the students’ independent research. Since they are all several months into their processes, making dramatic changes to their original plan would be impractical. “Even if I was in D.C. going to school in person, the school doesn’t have the resources that I need,” Anta said. “My project would still be on hold.”

By Maia Nehme

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