This year, 16-year-old Jamielee Buenemann experienced her first plane ride, visit to New York, friend from another country and many other “firsts” — all thanks to her first science fair.
Her most crucial “first” was taking first place in the Energy and Transportation category of the Mastodon Regional Science Fair last spring, earning her all-expense-paid trips to compete in international science fairs across the United States.
“Looking back on it, it’s a great miracle,” said Jamielee, who will be a junior at Washington High School this year. “I’ve been blessed.”
Last August, WHS teacher and Science Club moderator Elizabeth Hobbs approached Buenemann about entering a project in the Mastodon Fair.
“I didn’t know what the Mastodon was at the time, but I agreed to do it,” Jamielee said. “I’d always been interested in science, but that would be the first time I’d ever pursued it.”
Beginning last September, Jamielee made time between schoolwork and involvement in 4-H, Girl Scouts and the WHS band to spend more than 150 hours developing her project for the fair.
In April, Jamielee and Hobbs traveled to Jefferson County to attend the Mastodon Fair along with several other Washington students who had prepared projects.
“I knew that Jamielee’s was the best project we had, but I didn’t know what that would mean awards-wise,” said Hobbs.
To her teacher’s delight, Jamielee’s project ranked in the top five of more than 200 entries, qualifying her to advance to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Phoenix, a six-day competition featuring more than 1,600 science fair finalists from more than 70 countries.
“It was so shocking,” Jamielee said. “I had no idea I would make it that far and no idea of what was to come.”
“When I was Googling ideas for a science project, I saw a picture of a solar oven that we used to make in Girl Scouts,” said Jamielee. “I wanted to evolve that simple design into something you could heat more than hot dogs with.”
Fusing her interests in the environment and engineering, she decided to construct a solar-powered air heater from recycled materials.
“Initially, I wasn’t sure how she would pull it off, but Jamielee was confident and knew she wanted to do it,” recalled Hobbs.
The space heater, constructed of home scraps and industrial shipping waste, was able to raise the temperature 20 degrees Celsius without electricity and with a total cost of less than $40.
“One of the problems of going green is the high price, so that was my solution,” Jamielee said. “It also saves items from going to the landfill.”
Although her father Jerry helped her operate the necessary power tools, her project was “all Jamielee,” according to her mother Rita.
“Jamielee knew what she was doing the whole time,” Hobbs agreed. “With other students, I walked them through it, but Jamielee really did it on her own.”
Still, Jamielee expressed great thanks to Hobbs, her parents and St. Clair science teacher Ben Martin for all of their help throughout the year.
In addition to providing scientific guidance, Hobbs and Martin even accompanied Jamielee to events when her parents were unable.
“They kind of adopted me,” Jamielee said. “I’m so grateful for all of their support.”
International-Level Science Fairs
“ISEF was very humbling,” said Jamielee. “Walking through that room, you could be walking next to a future Nobel Prize winner. Even to be a judge of a category, you had to have a doctorate in that area of study.”
In May, ISEF competitors spent over nine hours a day standing at their projects, which ranged from prototypes of alternative energy cars to treatments for cancer.
Individual judges visited projects in 20-minute increments, during which they “drilled” participants with questions catered specifically to their projects.
“These judges know more about your project than you do,” said Jamielee. “They would test your scientific knowledge and ask about possible problems your project might have.”
After a “nerve-wracking” few days of judging and interviews, Jamielee became the first student advancing from the Mastodon Fair to win an award at the international level when the Patent and Trademark Office Society named her one of nine First Award winners.
“Many students create great projects, but a lot of times students aren’t able to have an expertise that they are able to communicate,” explained Hobbs. “It’s remarkable for someone so young as Jamielee to be able to communicate so effectively with adults.”
Jamielee’s success continued in June when she took her project to another international-level fair. At the GENIUS Olympiad International Science Fair in Oswego, N.Y., she earned a Silver Medal Award, which distinguished her project in the top fourth of the total 325 projects.
Jamielee’s experiences with international fairs have not only deepened her understanding of science, but also her understanding of the world.
“Over the course of these trips, I’ve unexpectedly been able to see so much of the United States,” said Jamielee.
Jamielee visited the Grand Canyon while in Arizona, Niagara Falls while in New York and the Sears Tower during a brief stop in Chicago.
Additionally, she learned about other cultures through spending time with participants from around the world.
“When you meet people from other cultures and other nations, you realize they aren’t as different as you think they are,” Jamielee explained. “Seeing so many people come together trying to make a difference makes you think maybe there is hope for this world.”
It is this sense of interconnectivity and optimism that has Buenemann energized to begin next year’s science project in August.
“It’s really neat for someone only entering her junior year of high school to be that confident in something she cares about,” said Hobbs. “I hope Jamielee’s example can inspire other students to excel and to want to gain all of the world experience that science fairs have given Jamielee.”