Mobile, Ala.– For four seniors at the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science (ASMS), this will be the school year they never forget – not just because of COVID-19 or even graduating, but because this week they made history for the school. Jon Dotson (Baldwin County), Baylee Keevan (Baldwin County), Michael McCaulley (Autauga County), and Peter Price (Baldwin County) were selected as the 1st place winners out of 4,000 submissions for the Toshiba and National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) ExploraVision Competition, a program that has existed since 1992.
In spring of 2019, ASMS Chemistry Department faculty member, Dr. Elisa Rambo, approached the four seniors with the opportunity to participate in the competition. Rambo had worked with these students in her chemistry classes and believed that together, their knowledge from coursework, scientific interests, and shown dedication could be a strong combination for a team. The students spent the next 10 months conducting research to produce a graduate level thesis that applied their knowledge from science and humanities classes at ASMS. The students expressed that Toshiba and NSTA gave them great latitude with their project submission, so Dr. Rambo challenged the students to somehow integrate the molecule Ethylcholine, a bacterial inhibitor, into current medical technology.
The students began by reading through medical journals and articles about the molecule, and eventually started to find common themes which inspired the idea for their project submission – Self-Immunizing Joint Replacements.
“Our project submission was divided into four different sections, and we had to work together to develop our idea and incorporate medical research to support our proposal. We needed to validate why we had a good idea, why it could work, and why it could be better than existing medical technology,” said Keevan.
Each student took responsibility for researching a section of the project. McCaulley took on Present Technology. Keevan read for the History section. Price read about Break Throughs, and Dotson read to discuss Future Technology.
“Although we each focused on specific sections, it ended up being more collaborative. We met once a week to discuss our findings, and sometimes the content one person contributed would apply to someone else’s section or fit better in support of another person’s research,” said Dotson.
“We really enjoyed bouncing ideas off each other and figuring out how to fit everything into the bigger picture,” shared Price.
The student’s final submission included an eleven-page research thesis which was academic in nature and a PowerPoint presentation which took more of a marketing approach. They summarize their final project submission as follows:
Joint replacement is one of the most commonly performed elective surgical procedures today, providing improved health and quality of life to millions of people. Total hip and knee replacement are expected to increase by over two hundred percent by 2030. Expectations of improved outcomes however come at a cost. Medicare alone spent upwards of 6 billion dollars on these surgeries. This healthcare investment is worth protecting. Although infections of artificial joints may only affect 1-2% of individuals, joint replacement surgery has become so common that thousands of people each year will be affected -some years after surgery at cost to the individual both physically and financially. With this growing concern in mind, simple chemical modifications to artificial joints, using small molecule Ethylcholine, may provide another tier of immunological defense to prevent these negative outcomes cause by infections.
The students were selected as regional winners in March of 2020 and were notified this week of their 1st place national victory. When asked about their response to the news, McCaulley exclaimed, “When we found out we were regional winners, we could not believe we made it that far, so when we found out we were 1st place national winners, we were all SHOCKED because we are the first team in ASMS history to win!”
Of specific significance to the students was not just their victory but how they grew personally through the process of developing and submitting their project. Several mentioned that they strengthened their time management, reading, and research skills which has better prepared them for college.
“Working on a project like this, you have to figure out how to set aside time to conduct your research and complete the project while still maintaining your schoolwork, grades, and other responsibilities. It was also very helpful to learn how to conduct research, read scientific papers, and write ideas to effectively convey a point,” said Keevan.
The students also described the joy of being able to apply what they learned in the classroom to the real world.
“Most high schoolers do not have the chance to take what they learn in chemistry, biology, or English into a real-world context. Even if our project does not become physical, there is still a great chance the information in our paper could be useful and applied in the science community,” said Price.
McCaulley echoed, “It was amazing to see all the work we put in amount to something that could be used to actually help people.”
When asked about the team’s victory, Dr. Rambo expressed her own admiration for the students, “As their ExploraVision team coach, I am humbled by their dedication to go beyond their limits and apply what they have learned while students at ASMS. I am exceptionally proud of their accomplishment and appreciate deeply the chance to work with these students. As a Team, we thank NSTA and Toshiba for this wonderful educational opportunity and challenge.”
Jon Dotson affirmed that this experience is one he and the other students will carry with them well into the future – “We will use the skills we have developed for the rest of our lives, and working on the project gave us all a vision for where we want to go and what we want to do next.”
In terms of what is next for their victory, the students will be honored by Toshiba and NSTA in June during a virtual awards ceremony. The students also gathered on a Zoom call, so they could celebrate the win together!
Jon Dotson (Baldwin County)
Baylee Keevan (Baldwin County)
Michael McCaulley (Autauga County)
Peter Price (Baldwin County)