A falling apple may have inspired Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity, so the story goes.
Kaitlin Stessney’s allergy to mosquito bites got her thinking about her science project this year, which was the first in her school’s history to receive the top ranking at the state science fair this year.
The project has earned high marks at several science fairs and commendations from state Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley Township, and state Rep. Zack Milkovich, D-Akron, who praised her at a surprise ceremony at Roswell Kent Middle School on Monday in Akron.
“In the summer in Ohio, there’s always mosquitoes everywhere and I happen to be allergic to them,” Stessney explained. “I get bit and it swells up a lot.”
She wondered if mosquito-borne malaria could work its way into Ohio and other northern regions if temperatures rose.
Stessney, who turns 13 this month, compared air temperature readings over a 30-year period in cities at different latitudes in North and South America with the prevalence of malaria.
The disease, which is caused by a parasite transmitted by females of a type of mosquito known collectively as Anopheles, typically is found in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. Anopheles mosquitoes thrive in higher temperatures and malaria parasites need warmth to mature enough to be transmitted to humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. health officials eliminated the transmission of malaria in the United States between 1947 and 1951, according to the CDC, though the mosquitoes that could carry it persist.
Stessney discovered a correlation in the data: temperatures and the incidence of malaria rose and fell together. The good news for Michigan: too cold for malaria.
“As the temperature rises and drops, malaria cases followed it,” Stessney said. “The data supported my hypothesis.”
Stessney, a seventh-grader at Roswell Kent, is one of 16 students participating in an international science program called the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE), which enables school-age children worldwide to collect and share data on the planet’s environment and climate. They work with government science agencies such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the National Science Foundation.
The program started on Earth Day 1995, and the network now includes representatives from 112 countries with more than 54,000 GLOBE-trained teachers representing over 24,000 schools from 112 countries around the world. Steven Frantz, a sixth-grade science teacher at Roswell Kent, is one of those teachers. He launched the GLOBE project at his school in 2006. GLOBE is supported by grant money.
This year, the GAR Foundation contributed nearly $15,000 through its Educator Initiative Grant program.
Students must carve out time from study halls to participate.
Stessney was among the first sixth-graders to join last year. She said that while she’d always done well in math, she had some trouble with science until joining GLOBE.
“I kind of struggled in it, but with the GLOBE program, it actually helped me a lot,” Stessney said. “I liked doing it and it made me like science even more.”
Frantz said students get to do real science and collaborate with students and even college professors all over the world.
“Kids literally from all over the world are doing research projects like Kaitlin’s,” Frantz said. “The data she collected, she also puts into the GLOBE database. So kids from all over the world can access her data. Over the years, we’ve received doctoral dissertations and master’s theses where they’ve actually referenced Roswell Kent Middle School that they’ve used this data.”
The future of the program is uncertain, however, because staff reductions will make it harder to carve time out of the regular school day.
“We’re concerned with the way the budget is and whether we’ll be able to keep this program next year or not,” Frantz said. “I know the principal has indicated that he won’t be able to accommodate it during the school day.”
Frantz has squeezed time out of the regular school day to work with students, using planning periods and lunch room duty times. The students must collect their data at noon to be included in the GLOBE database.
“We’re kind of locked into doing it during the school day because we want to keep it real and relevant for the kids,” Frantz said.
Akron Superintendent David James said he and Principal Anthony Lane have discussed shifting most of the program, which is not an official Akron Public Schools course, to after school hours, though students could still collect data at noon, perhaps during their lunch time.
“The time for his work with students could switch from during the day to after school,” James said.
Stessney hopes to further her malaria research next year by examining other geographical areas and variables, such as population.
She eventually hopes her work with GLOBE will help her get to Yale University, where she hopes to study astronomy and astrophysics.
“I would be heartbroken if we don’t have GLOBE next year,” she said.