Jessa Lale's science project best in state

Wednesday, April 21, 2004
Jessa Lale's dirt digging has earned her the "Overall Best of Show" award at the state science fair and the opportunity to compete internationally with the best of the best. CCN / Anna Mathews

ALPENA ---- Jessa Lale's dirt-digging prowess has earned her much more than the friendly kidding she's been getting from classmates.

This Alpena High School senior not only got her nails dirty, but earned Overall Best of Show at the 2004 State of Arkansas Science and Engineering Fair ---- and a trip to Portland, Ore., to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

"She did the unthinkable," exclaimed Alpena School science fair coordinator Mark Welch. "Out of 272 projects, she had the best of all of them!"

Welch says she will now be recognized as one of best pre-collegiate science researchers in the world.

Lale's winning project compared commercial and native clay samples. It was a project she had been working on for nearly six years.

Lale said she started digging in the dirt when still a grade school student.

"When I was about eight, I asked a kid question," she recalled. "I asked my parents (who were potters) why do you have to order clay instead of getting it out of the ground."

After given a brief answer, she set out on her own to discover the difference between commercial clay and common clay.

"In the sixth grade, I made rulers out of both clays and checked shrinkage and water retention," she said. "Each had some."

Lale said she took a break from her clay quest for a few years and started up again in the tenth grade.

"I tested shrinkage, water retention and strength using commercial clay and common clay samples that I gathered from my back yard and from a nearby hillside," she said.

"The results showed that commercial clay was the best. It had less shrinkage, less water retention, and it was the strongest."

She said she began testing again in the eleventh grade, adding two more native clays from nearby locations.

"The results showed that commercial clay was still the best suited for pottery work," she said.

As a senior, she started up the project again. "This time, I narrowed it to only one native clay," she said. "I mixed it into a clay recipe used by my dad and actually had pots made, wheel thrown, bisque fired, glazed and fired again. I tested linear shrinkage, solid volume shrinkage, water retention and strength."

She said the recipe she used included hawthorne bond fire clay, silica, feldspar and grog. She switched out the commercial Old Mine #4 for her common clay.

"The results were that the clay mix could be used in commercial production," she said.

Her experiment also shed light on a glazing problem her dad and other potters were experiencing.

"The glaze defect," she explained, "was a problem spreading among potters. It was causing thousands of dollars worth of pots that couldn't be sold.

"I took samples of the Old Mine #4 and native clay to the University of Central Arkansas and used a scanning electron microscope to look at the different chemicals in the clays.

"I discovered a large amount of titanium in the Old Mine #4, which was not in the native clay."

She said her mix didn't create the glaze problem that the commercial blend did, a discovery that gave her dad and other potters pause for thought.

Lale and her award winning project will travel to Portland, Ore., for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair that begins on May 9.

"I'm ready," said Lale. "I did all my tweaking before the state competition. I plan to enjoy my time."

Welch said she'll be competing against 50-100 others in her category of earth and space science.

Welch will accompany Lale on the trip, along with David Good, her sponsor and science teacher, and her parents, Newt Lale and Amy McGehee.

Welch had plenty to say about Alpena's outstanding science program, which earned the top score at the state science and engineering fair, beating out all others, including the Arkansas School of Math, Science and Arts.

In the Junior division, another Alpena student, 9th grader Julie Wilcox, took the state championship. Four other students placed in their categories.

Jessica Rose also took a state championship award in the environmental science division.

"We took 53 awards at the Regional Science Fair," Welch said. "In addition, our 10th, 11th and 12th graders took best of show three years running. That's unprecedented. We have different students every time.

"Another student, Lisa Ogier," he said, "earned the right to go to Portland by taking best of show at regionals. Jessa and Lisa will now be recognized as some of the best pre-collegiate science researchers in the world.

"They earned the right to go," he continued. "We beat out the Math and Science School and everyone. I'm pretty proud of that."

Lale says she's looking forward to the trip to Portland.

"I've worked on the project since last June and I'm glad I'm done," she said. "After graduation, I plan to go to Arkansas Tech in Russellville. I haven't decided on a major yet."

Lale lives with her parents in Osage, where her dad operates Osage Clay Works from the historical Stamps store in downtown Osage.

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