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The Oregonian: Intel Northwest Science Expo draws hundreds of high school scientists to PSU
Author: By Bill Graves
Posted: April 1, 2010

Among the hundreds of students competing in the state science fair at Portland State University today will be three Portland freshmen who've discovered scores of videos on the Internet that could trigger epileptic seizures in some people.

Annelise Cummings, 14, and Alexander Harding, 15, of Cleveland High School and Mariah Bruns, 15, of St. Mary's Academy already won best of show in the regional Portland Public Schools Science Expo, guaranteeing them a spot at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair next month in San Jose, Calif.

But today they'll also try their luck representing Cleveland High at the Intel Northwest Science Expo on the Portland State campus, where judges will evaluate 525 science, engineering and mathematics projects by 660 middle and high school students from Oregon and southwest Washington.

The young scientists represent the top third of competitors from eight regional fairs and are about half girls, half boys, said Stephanie Jones, fair director.

"This is valid science going on," she said of their projects.

Intel Northwest Science Expo What: A state science fair for the top third of competitors from Oregon and southwest Washington in eight regional science fairs

Who: 660 students, 270 in high school and 390 in middle school, exhibiting 525 projects in the sciences, engineering, computer science and mathematics

Where: Portland State University

When: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. today

What's next: Top winners from state fair along with winners from regional fairs go as Team Oregon to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, May 9-14 in San Jose, Calif. Cleveland High's sole team in the state science fair analyzed 71 YouTube videos for their potential to trigger seizures in children with photosensitive epilepsy.

About one in 4,000 children has the condition in which flashes of light can trigger reactions ranging from a momentary absent-minded stare to a collapse and the violent shaking of a major seizure.

The results of a Pokémon episode that aired on Japanese television Dec. 16, 1997, suggests that even more children can be affected by flashing light in some circumstances, the students said. One scene of red and blue flashing lights in the Pokémon episode sent 685 children to the hospital and sparked milder symptoms, such as blurred vision and headaches, in another 12,000 children.

The Cleveland team set out to see whether YouTube videos on the Internet might pose seizure risks to teen viewers. To eliminate sound as a variable in their study, they focused on videos that used the top song for 2009 -- "Boom Boom Pow" by the Black Eyed Peas.

Using software that surveys the flashing in videos to assess whether they have potential for triggering seizures, the students analyzed 20 animations, 20 parodies, 20 montages and 11 videos. The 11 videos included seizure warnings, but the others did not. They had predicted about 10 percent might pose dangers, but found that 86 percent of them did.

"That means a huge proportion of YouTube videos are potentially harmful," Bruns said.

The students wore polarized glasses to protect themselves as they did their research, but even then one video hit Harding with a headache and another gave Cummings vertigo and disorientation, forcing her to stop.

The three students launched their project in January and put scores of hours into it with help from Cummings' mother, Ronda Royal, a clinical psychologist and advisory board member for an online journal about epilepsy. Royal advised the team as its adult sponsor and coach. The young researchers asked the right questions, she said, and gave her some insights about teen culture.

"It has been a learning experience for me," she said.

Cummings proposed the project after reading a story Royal showed her about a teenage girl who struggled with disorientation from video games until the girl discovered she had photosensitive epilepsy.

Cummings recruited Bruns and Harding for the project because they all had participated together in several science fairs during their middle-school years at Southeast Portland's Winterhaven School.

Cummings said that with her interest in entertainment and communications, Harding's deft computer skills and Bruns' attraction to medical science, the students all brought their own strengths to the research.

"A little bit of each of us is in this project," she said. "That is why we don't want to let it go now."

The students hope their work will foster some effort to screen YouTube videos for the potential to trigger epileptic reactions, they said.

"We don't want to censor videos," Harding said. "We just want to warn people. We want (potentially dangerous videos) labeled."

Cummings said they'd also like to take their research a step further by monitoring brain activities in young people as they watch videos. All the researchers have now is what their software tells them.

"We want to find out if (the videos) actually affect people," Cummings said.

For more information on the Cleveland team and their project, go to their Web site.