CHS students Tilden Fernandez and Sam Rimm-kaufman explain their project

More than 425 students filled the University of Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena on Tuesday to showcase projects involving math, science and engineering principles.

The 34th annual Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair is a chance for students to exhibit and demonstrate their projects to judges and the public.

“For us, it’s the promotion of science education and to have a more diverse workforce across science areas,” said fair director Adrian Felts.

Felts said the regional fair encourages students to explore different areas of science and have the chance to move on to the state fair.

“It’s a good way to encourage students to study science and compete at a level that keeps them interested,” Felts said.

Students from grades six through 12 from more than a dozen school divisions were represented.

Charlottesville High School ninth-grader Tilden Fernandez and 11th-grader Sam Rimm-Kaufman are in the school’s Best All-around Club of Nerds, or BACON, science club. Their project was an electromagnetic linear actuator.

“We have a really strong science and math program … but we are unheard of at science fairs and we want to change that,” said Rimm-Kaufman, who said the BACON club members also compete in local robotics competitions.

Sara Rimm-Kaufman, Sam’s mom, said she’s excited about her son’s enthusiasm for applying ideas he’s learned in classes to real-life, practical examples.

She said that in the process of creating a new technology, one hopes it works out, but explaining and understanding why it sometimes doesn’t is part of learning, as well.

“It’s about taking a risk, applying something new and building something from scratch,” she said.

CHS teacher Matt Shields, who helped to oversee the project, said science fairs engage students in important activities sometimes overlooked during 45-minute science class, such as teamwork, research and independent problem solving.

“A science fair project is often the vehicle to take decontextualized content from the textbook to that ‘Ah ha!’ moment,” he said.

Shields said he’s discovered that the rate of learning while students are engaged in challenging self-guided projects is higher than in just about any other educational experience he’s tried.

Albemarle High School topped all schools with 47 participants. The school attributes a lot of its success at the regional science fair to its Math, Engineering and Science Academy.

“Our Math, Engineering and Science Academy operates on the concept of passion-based learning, which is a perfect fit with the science fair values,” said Jeff Prillaman, director of MESA.

All 11th-grade students in the academy are required to submit a project to the regional science fair.

AHS junior Graham Haynie and his partner presented a project that tested wireless signals on plant growth, to better understand if such signals have an effect on humans. Haynie said he applied to the academy because he is interested in engineering.

Prillaman said students know that being able to say their work was recognized at regional, state and even international levels adds a significant competitive edge to a college application.

AHS junior Will Banner said having so many students participating pushes them to get projects done and gives each other competition to make their projects better.

“The science fair is the most creative event we have in MESA because we can literally choose anything we want to do as long as we present at the fair,” he said.

Albemarle schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said teaching students to be creative and work together though trial and error to come up with a project that works has had an extraordinary impact on participation in the science fair.

High school students compete in a senior division and middle school students compete in a junior division. First, second and third place are awarded in each of 17 categories, and more than 100 special awards are presented by 30-plus organizations.

Each senior division first place winner is invited to advance to the Virginia State Science & Engineering Fair being held March 27-28 at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.

This year’s two grand award projects were by AHS senior Monica Grabowska and AHS 10th-graders Seth Liyanage and Ishpreet Singh.

These three students also are automatically qualified to go to the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair being held in Pittsburgh in May.