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Student Spends Off-days Exploring Wonder of Science

Science experiments are nothing new for Andy Ylitalo. The Oak-Land Junior High School seventh-grader does a science project each school year during winter break. It’s been a tradition in his family for years and he and his younger brother both are encouraged by their scientist parents to come up with project ideas on their own.
In years past, the projects may have been for presentation at a school science fair, but this year, Andy’s sights were set a little higher.

This was the first year that the Stillwater Area Schools district pushed back its science fairs so that winners could enter into the regional science fair, the winners of which may enter their projects in the state science fair.

In past years the school-based science fairs were too late in the school year to allow winners to continue competing at higher levels — ultimately culminating in a competition at the Minnesota Academy of Science state science fair.

The local science fair now is sponsored by the Partnership Plan in conjunction with the school district. It started in 2007 as a districtwide event and was called the Science Expo.

After the fair in 2007, there was some interest from students to be able to compete further in science fairs, up to the state level.

This year’s science fair was combined with the Partnership Plan’s Art to Heart event and renamed Da Vinci Fest.

The Twin Cities Regional Science Fair was in February and Andy qualified for entry in the state competition by earning a blue ribbon, an award designated for the top 5 percent of projects entered at the regional level.

His project, Disinfecting Drinking Water: What Works Best? was his own brainchild, he said. As he was brainstorming ideas for his winter break project, Andy said, he developed the idea to see what types of products that can be used to disinfect bacteria-laden drinking water were most effective.

Refining and planning how the project would run started around Thanksgiving and the experiments were underway by the school’s winter break.

“I put a lot of hours into it during the two weeks at Christmas break,” Andy said Tuesday from his West Lakeland home.

Andy contaminated well water from his home tap with small amount of saliva to create his stock of water for testing. After that was determined, he set out to test the effectiveness of chlorine bleach, iodine tablets and colloidal silver in reducing the bacteria load in the water.

Ultimately the experiment showed that colloidal silver was the most effective method to make water more bacteria free.

“Silver works really well and it’s actually very safe,” Andy said. “The problem with it is it’s pretty expensive.”

Andy’s love of science and math may come a lot from his parents’ influence. His mother Caroline Ylitalo holds a Ph.D. in science and is a researcher-inventor in labs at 3M while his father, also a Ph.D. in science, is a laboratory manager for 3M.

Caroline Ylitalo has worked for years with aspiring scientists to instill in them a love of science and affection for curiosity and problem solving.

“Science is fun. That’s what we’re focused on here,” said Caroline Ylitalo, who also is a visiting science “wizard” at Andersen Elementary School and a Destination Imagination coach.

“I think kids come up with the best ideas,” Caroline Ylitalo said. “They don’t look at it like adults who say what’s doable. They have a broader perspective.”

While Andy enjoys science, what he really loves is mathematics. He is enrolled in the five-year Talented Youth Math Program at the University of Minnesota this year.

He also plays soccer in the Valley Athletic Association and plays saxophone and piano.

He likes to get together with his friends every now and then and go to a movie, go bowling or take a skiing trip.

Andy said he hasn’t thought too much about what he will study in college or what kind of job he wants when he gets older — he is only 12 right now — but he was firm about one thing that’s sure to be in his future: “I don’t know what it will be,” Andy said of his future job, “but I know it will have math in it somewhere.”

Caroline Ylitalo said she hopes the immediate future will bring a change in the approaches to teaching science in Stillwater district schools.

“We’re hoping Andy’s success and interest in the science projects will motivate the schools to consider allowing kids in school to work on science projects as part of the curriculum,” she said.

Joining Andy at the state science fair at the Crown Plaza Hotel in St. Paul March 30 to April 1 is Stillwater Area High School senior Abigail Williams whose project about trout stream water quality also qualified for entry.

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