Education feature: Clovis sophomore hoping to study aeronautical engineering

Clovis High sophomore Jay Burns will compete in the state science fair April 7-8 in Socorro. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

A thin strand of stainless steel wire, for Jay Burns, is utterly essential. So is aluminum foil, lightweight balsa wood and a high-voltage power supply.

These are the components of his science fair project.

The Clovis High School sophomore scavenged all but one of the items from his father’s hardware shop. He dug into old computer monitors, hoping he could use a wire from the back of the monitors as a source of high-voltage power. After ruining two monitors with no luck, his mother handed him more than $100 to buy a 30,000-volt power source.

With fuzzy instructions in books and on the Internet his only guides, Burns assembled the pieces into an asymmetrical capacitor — a device, mysterious even to paid scientists, capable of propulsion. The question is, why?

“Researchers are still trying to investigate the cause of the thrust,” said Burns, maps of asymmetrical capacitors in a thick stack on his dining room table. “Some say the high-voltage electricity strips electrodes out of atoms, causing them to rush down and cause propulsion, like a rocket.”

The rush is called ion wind. But many find this explanation insufficient to explain the anti-gravity thrusting. And Burns wants to prove an asymmetrical capacitor can work in space.
“If it does work in space, it would be absolutely revolutionary,” Burns said.

An aspiring aeronautical engineer, Burns hopes his project can propel him to the international science fair. He attended the event for the first time last year, lauded for his project on global warming.
He was surrounded by peers with interests similar to his, a somewhat rare occasion.

“It was absolutely incredible meeting people not only with the same interests as me, but people from all over the world, places like Argentina and Chile,” Burns said.

Burns has been participating in local and state science fair competitions since he entered first grade, at the insistence of his mother, he said. The state science fair on April 7-8 in Socorro will be the 20th science fair in which he has participated.

“I wanted both of my children to participate in the science fairs,” said Burns’ mother, Katie, a local lawyer. “It was also a way for me to spend one-on-one time with them, a time for us to look at books and think about things.”

His mother now takes a more peripheral role, urging her son to get an early start on his projects and learning along with him, rather than teaching him.

“I’m out of my league now,” she said.

Burns is the only Clovis High School student who participated in the district science fair this year. He was the only junior high school student from his school to enter the fair the year before last. Though he surrounds himself with a group of friends with similar scholastic interests, he often feels set apart from others his age, he said. He finds it easier to talk to adults than his classmates. He wishes that more students would get involved in science.

“People in my grade level are more interested in things that are not educationally related or extra-curricular. It seems like they lose interest in their education once they go beyond the junior high. That’s not a good thing to see,” said Burns, looking very teenage-like in a yellow hooded sweatshirt, his hair spiked in a trendy style.

The lack of interest in science is confined to Clovis, Burns said. Throngs of students from other school districts in New Mexico are represented at the state fair, he said.

“Some of my friends have shown interest in doing a science project, but they never got started. They aren’t pushed by their teachers,” Burns said.

His mother agrees. There is a lack of role models interested in science in Clovis, she said.

Burns said he is blown away by the projects of others at the state level. And he can feel a bit intimidated, an emotion only intensified when he attended last year’s international fair.

“It is incredible to go to the international level and see the talent there. The people who attend are vastly more intelligent than I am,” said Burns, who gestures excitedly with his hands as he talks.

For the most part, projects done by American students are leagues behind those done by others, especially by Asian students, Burns said. It is an observation also noticed at the federal level. During his State of the Union address, President Bush pledged support for America’s Competitive Edge Act, which focuses on encouraging more students to get college degrees in math, science and engineering, as well as improving math and science education for K-12 teachers.

“I am not saying Americans didn’t have some incredible (science fair) projects,” Burns said. “But for being the wealthiest nation on the planet, we should be far and away the best. And we are not.”
Burns will continue in his pursuit of science, even if he has to trudge on the path alone.

“You have to enjoy learning to have a good science fair project. I enjoy learning,” Burns said.

For his 21st science fair project, Burns said he plans to investigate alternative fuel sources, such as ethanol.