SJN sixth-graders nab top honors at regional science competition

Brett Shaffer, science teacher at St. John Neumann Catholic School, took 12 middle school students to the University of Tennessee to compete in the 23-county Southern Appalachian Science and Engineering Fair for sixth- through eighth-graders. Two of his sixth-graders — Tina Fanelli and Dmitri Kalinin — came home with the top two honors. From left to right are Brett Shaffer, Kate Pettinger, Tina Fanelli, Ellen Falvey, Audrey Weaver, and Dmitri Kalinin.
Maria Augustina “Tina” Fanelli rattled some pots and pans to bring home the most prestigious trophy and $200 to line her pockets.

The St. John Neumann Catholic School sixth-grader was named Junior Division Grand Champion, the top winner in her division, at this year’s Southern Appalachian Science and Engineering Fair held at The University of Tennessee March 27-30.

Science teacher Brett Shaffer takes students to the fair each year, but for the first time the top two spots in the junior division for grades six through eight were claimed by SJN students.

“It’s very unusual for two sixth-graders to do so well,” Shaffer said. “We have won other awards in the past, but we’ve never won both the top two positions before. Five of our kids took first place in their sections. From those blue ribbons, the judges agreed on the grand champion and the reserve champion.”

Participating students were Tina (Environmental Science), Dmitri Kalinin (Cellular and Molecular Biology), Ellen Falvey (Earth and Planetary Science), Kate Pettinger (Engineering: Materials and Bioengineering), and Audrey Weaver (Microbiology). Sixth graders Abbey Arnold, Mason Burkhardt and Adriana Zablah earned honorable mention.

“We had a science fair at the school the first week of February,” Shaffer said, “and 46 sixth-graders participated. I ended up sending 12 to the main competition. There we won first and second [and awards of excellence] and had three others win awards of excellence, for a total of five.”

In second place as Reserve Champion was Tina’s classmate Dmitri, who brought home a trophy and $100 for his project and who also won the Naval Science Award from the U.S. Department of the Navy and another $25 prize.

Tina’s winning display was called “Do-It-Yourself Bio-Plastics.”

“I was kind of looking into doing something that would be good for the environment,” she said.

Tina found the not-so-secret formula for bio-plastic online.

“Bio-plastic decomposes into the ground and is good for the environment,” she said. “Regular plastic has chemicals and is toxic when you melt it. With some recipes, I used mainly glycerine and vinegar and with others I used bananas or potatoes, cornstarch and vinegar. It was mostly like gel, but once it cooled, it turned into a stretchier-type plastic.”

Dmitri’s project was called “Salty, Sour, and Soapy Cells: Separately and Simultaneously.”

The SASEF is the premier science competition for students in middle and high school in a 23-county service area of East Tennessee and has promoted teaching the scientific method in science, engineering, and math since 1952.

The fair is sponsored by UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as well as many local companies and agencies.

There are two divisions of competition – Junior Division for middle school students grades sixth through eighth, and Senior Division for high school students grades nine through 12.

SASEF is an official, affiliated regional fair of the International Science and Engineering Fair, and the top two senior division students won an expense-paid trip to compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair this month in Los Angeles.