Pettriess helps Discovery Channel's prime time science challenge

3:20:24 PM CDT - Thursday, November 04, 2004

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Bobbie Pettriess took a break last week from teaching microbiology and growing bacteria in her Hubbard Hall lab to challenge some middle-school kids in a nationwide contest that will air during prime time sometime in December on the Discovery Channel.

Selected from 1,800 science fair participants in 16 states, 40 middle-school students gathered at the University of Maryland campus to face five scientific challenges in the 6th Annual Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge.

Pettriess' part in the contest was to act as an event host, helping to set up and instruct the kids on her particular challenge, which involved having students identify 10 different microscopic protozoa floating around in various jars.

Compared to the scientists displaying skeletons of a lion attacking an antelope and of a giraffe and hippopotamus and the gravity challenge that had students measuring G-forces created while skateboarding, Pettriess thought her less-dramatic challenge might border on the boring for the students.


Bobbie Pettriess visits with a middle-school student during the Discovery Channel's Young Scientist Challenge. In the challenge Pettriess "hosted," the 40 participants had to find and identify 10 protozoa under a microscope. The students could take digital images of the organisms with cameras hooked to the microscopes.

Photo by William Fitzpatrick

But feedback indicated that students actually enjoyed her challenge event the best, Pettriess said.
Her event wasn't without some gee-whiz factors, however. The microscopes used in the challenge were hooked to plasma TVs, so students could project the slides they were looking at onto the big screen. And once they found the protozoa they had to identify, they could capture the images with the digital cameras wired to the microscopes, as well.

"The participants had a ball," Pettriess said. "I had a great time, too."

Camera crews followed the students as they completed the challenges in teams of five.

This year's competition featured a number of challenges inspired by Albert Einstein's work. Next year marks the centennial of Einstein's relativity theory.


Bobbie Pettriess, microbiology lab coordinator, just returned from participating in the Discovery Channel's Young Scientist Challenge.

Photo by Inside WSU

Two WSU-educated scientists developed the challenges, which helps explain how Pettriess got involved in the contest this year.

Bill White, who received a master's in biochemistry and has helped come up with the experiments for the show for the past four years, asked Pettriess to host the protozoa challenge. His partner Steve Jacobs, who has received three education degrees from WSU, has been developing the experiments ever since the contest started in 1999.

When the Discovery Channel contacted the National Science Teachers Association for someone interested in developing the challenges, colleagues referred the TV folks to Faraday Studios, which focuses on science-based entertainment, and the studios' two WSU graduates.

The hour-long special on the contest will air for the first time in prime time this year, White said. No air date has been set.

Students in the challenge competed for more than $100,000 worth of scholarships and special prizes. Michael Phelps, America's Olympic swimming phenomenon, was the keynote speaker at the contest's awards ceremony.

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