Notre Dame students win at national science fair

In Dr. Ayyavoo’s science class at Notre Dame High School, model molecules hang from the ceiling, dry aquariums show replica deserts, rain forests and other biomes, and animal skulls peek out from a cupboard.

Students Isabelle Labeca-Gordon, left, and Rhea Deshpande, right, stand with teacher Dr. Gabriel Ayyavoo in their science class at Notre Dame High School. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Students Isabelle Labeca-Gordon, left, and Rhea Deshpande, right, stand with teacher Dr. Gabriel Ayyavoo in their science class at Notre Dame High School.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

But according to Ayyavoo and his students, much of what makes this class live up to the sign on the door (“Science Fun This Way —>”) are things that happen outside class.

“It’s not just about learning science,” Ayyavoo says. “It’s about doing it.”

Evidence of that approach and what it means for Notre Dame’s young scientists begins in the hallway just outside the door.

Blown up on a giant three-foot poster is a trophy rarely seen in high schools – a science article done up with graphs, photos and an abstract detailing what a student’s award-winning science project found out about the effect of cinnamon on sugar levels.

Ayyavoo, who continues to publish research on science education at the University of Toronto, has taught high school science for 22 years. At least one of his students has gone on to Canada’s national science fair every year since 1995.

Like a good coach, Ayyavoo credits dedicated students for that unbroken streak. But clearly, he also has a strategy that clicks.

Rather than teach textbook topics, unit by unit, Ayyavoo builds his class around a major scientific investigative project – SIPs.

“I try to mimic what happens in the real world,” he says.

Students pick what to study – he only steps in to show them how. Like the cinnamon study, Ayyavoo says many students choose topics with effects that can see, or even taste, in everyday life. The students also edit their own online science journal, Dame Detectives, where they can publish results and post questions to an online forum.

Students Isabelle Labeca-Gordon and Rhea Deshpande remember what a shock that was when they first arrived in Ayyavoo’s class.

“In Grade 9, everyone walked in and when Dr. Ayyavoo said, ‘Oh, SIP will be your final task,’ everyone in the class said, ‘We’re dropping! We’re dropping science!” said Deshpande.

“You’re like – this isn’t the curriculum! But once you start doing it, you get an academic high. And once you’re done, you start planning for next year. It snowballs.”

By now, especially after a high-flying week at the Lethbridge science fair where Deshpande and Labeca-Gordon won scholarship awards, both students are into science full swing.

“It’s not even work anymore,” said Labeca-Gordon. “It’s just something that you do, like playing soccer or doing dance – you’re just doing science because you love it.”

Now in Grade 12 and on her way to the University of Ottawa with a $10,000 scholarship and summer job doing lab research, Labeca-Gordon had a few projects under her belt before taking on her latest – a study of a natural antibiotic  that may prevent urinary tract infections and is present in green tea.

The nature of the work meant Labeca-Gordon had to apprentice with Dr. Tony Mazzulli, a microbiologist and infectious disease consultant, and work in his lab at Mount Sinai Hospital.

“I worked with bacteria that has caused epidemics in India, so I really needed a lab to ensure safety with that,” she explains.

Deshpande, who is now in Grade 10, worked with a more benign organism – a single-cell water algae whose leading danger is simply being ignored.

“There’s like seven papers on Chlorella, because no one talks about it ever,” she said.

But the little algae, which has some of the highest concentrations of photosynthesizing chlorophyll of any organism on the planet, will likely play a big role in water treatment.

For her study, where she used Chlorella to treat water from nearby Taylor Creek and test it in chicken kidneys, Deshpande bought 500 grams of the powdered Chlorella for just $5.

A person would only need one gram every three days to treat the water they need, she said, making it a good first step in removing harmful bacteria from the drinking water of developing countries.

Besides showing their own projects, Deshpande and Labeca-Gordon said the Lethbridge fair was a great chance to do science workshops with other students, and to get to know each other.

Being a couple years apart can be a big deal in high school. But besides the day they all fended off a mock zombie attack (“I was so impressed – they had dummies that would actually talk to you and bleed out”), Labeca-Gordon said one of the takeaways from the national fair was how even young students can take their science.

One student younger than Deshpande developed a kind of Skype robot on wheels that can track a speaker’s movement so they video chat while moving around.

“She was  in Grade 8,” Deshpande said. “I was like – you’re awesome.”

Labeca-Gordon, on the other hand, had the honour of setting up her booth beside Adam Noble—a Grade 12 student from Peterborough who last year joined a handful of student scientists at the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm.

“Oh my gosh – can I explain this situation?” said Labeca-Gordon, describing how Noble used silver nano particles to shrink the size of cancer tumours by 45 per cent in just eight days.

“I was presenting next to him and, naturally, he won the whole thing,” she said. “Essentially, he’s been working on this one project for four years. He’s just a really inspiring person.”

Noble sets a very high bar, but Deshpande said getting to a national science fair is mostly about sweating the small stuff.

“Not everyone needs to cure cancer,” she said. “What the judges recognize I think is a legitimate and thorough line of questioning, and that you have a good scientific method.

“You just need to show that you have passion, that you have put in effort, and you’re very knowledgeable in your subject.”

To learn more about the Dame Detectives and their work, visit

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