The term confluence is defined as a flowing together, a meeting or gathering at one point. On the evening of Thursday, March 23, Medomak Valley High School hosted not only a confluence of art and science, but also of school and community.
“We Do Matter: A Night of Science, Community Art and Mental Health Awareness” showcased the work of the school’s science and photography students for members of the public.
The cafeteria was filled with displays highlighting the experimentation and research completed by students in preparation for the state science fair and the halls were lined with hundreds of portraits taken by advanced photography students in response to the #WhyYouMatter campaign that first began at a Michigan high school in 2017.
After the death of three students, two to suicide, two art teachers at Chelsea High School just outside Ann Arbor sought a way to start a conversation around mental health and to build an environment in which all students could be heard, seen, and loved. The viral campaign spread to 18 states, four countries, and more than 65 schools since its inception.
In 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was finding its foothold in Maine, MVHS completed its first #WhyYouMatter project. Art educator Brooke Holland, with the help of volunteer photographer Kyle Santheson, showed students how to light and shoot studio-style portraits and sent them out to gather classmates willing to pose with a whiteboard response to the prompt “why you matter.”
According to Holland, the portraits were to be part of a district-wide art show that would open to the public in March 2020. The day after the show was set up and the portraits hung on the walls, schools closed county-wide in response to the increasing risk of exposure to COVID-19. The community never got to see the work.
Participants in the MVHS #WhyYouMatter campaign came together during Thursday’s event to talk about how the 2023 project came about and why the concept behind it is still important.
Trishelle Ames was a freshman during the first project and Holland said she was the impetus to revisit it three years later.
“A lot of stuff has happened to us in the last (few) years of high school,” Ames, now a senior, said. She wanted to show her fellow students “we do matter. We do have a purpose.”
Jayla Robinson said she found it interesting to see how people have changed. A display outside the cafeteria showed just that, with photographs from 2020 paired with their 2023 counterparts.
“We all really wanted it to happen,” Evelyn Overlock said about the project’s reprise. Overlock was involved in both campaigns. “We really haven’t felt the same since COVID.”
She blames the pandemic for the separation that occurred in the community and said the #WhyYouMatter project became “a driving force to bring us back together.”
Ashley Abruzese said she had taken plenty of portraits before, but she found it an interesting challenge to get her fellow students to show up for the photo sessions. One tactic was to target friend groups. It worked and ultimately more than half the school was photographed.
Another tactic was to actually remind people they were important and to help them formulate the words on the whiteboard.
“That’s what was holding a lot of people back,” Jazmyne Fowler said. “Not knowing why they matter.”
For Sydney Riley, the best part was that everyone smiles.
“I just think everyone looks so beautiful in all these pictures,” she said.
In 2020 there were 250-plus photographs taken. This year there were 334. The next challenge is to get the portraits out into the community where they can continue to be seen by the public. Holland is exploring the idea of a traveling show that can rotate through a number of community spaces.
The Maine State Science Fair takes place on Saturday, April 1 and the “Night of Science” portion of the evening was geared toward preparing students to present their research to college professors and working scientists.
Students were judged by community members on the quality of their research, their ability to form a solid hypothesis, their methods of experimentation and their ability to explain their findings.
Pamela Ramsey enjoyed being a judge. Ramsey is a former MVHS biology teacher who organized the school’s science fair for years.
“There’s a delicate balance,” she said, “between challenging kids to think about what they haven’t, but also encouraging them. They’ll be talking to professors and people in industry. That’s intimidating if you’re a teen. In fact, it’s intimidating if you’re an adult.”
MVHS science teachers Chris Lynch and Jennifer Hatch mentored students through more than 30 hours of work on their various projects.
“They need to start early because a problem will inevitably arise and you want to hurry up and get to your wall so you know what you have to climb.” Lynch said. “Many of them are on the ground floor. This is their first project. We’ll see how the competition increases at the state level.”
For Hatch, having the community involved was the best part.
“Last year’s science fair, they had a lot of success. And the energy is even bigger this year,” she said.
In 2022 there were 24 projects submitted to the state competition by 24 students; two won second place and, more importantly, two received full-term renewable scholarships, according to Hatch.
This year there were 22 projects from 29 students.
Makayla Ward researched how adverse childhood experiences affect resilience and self-esteem.
“Honestly, I was so nervous,” she said about being judged. “I practiced so much actually. The anticipation was killing me.”
Elias Pluecker wanted to see if kale has improved pathogen resistance when inoculated with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. He said he improved his ability to work through problems, as he had many completing the project.
Carrick Lally explained how his project used an electrotactic flow chamber to study the effects of supplementation on the longevity of C. elegans, a small soil worm that shares some genetic traits with ancient humans. Carrick appreciated the opportunity to speak about his project to strangers, calling the event “a change of scenery from friends and family.”
Kristian Schumann and Seamus Donaghy studied the effects of eutrophication of chlorella and local algae species. Schumann said the pair chose their project because it focused on a real world problem happening in lakes around Lincoln County. Donaghy said that eutrophication, or an excessive richness of nutrients, is often caused by fertilizer runoff and is a root cause of algae blooms.
After the evening ended and the judging rubrics were compared, Quinn Natale took first place with the project, “Music’s impact on improving academic achievement for students with ADHD.” Second place went to Pluecker for his project, “Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi’s effect on improving pathogen resistance in food crops.” Third place was a tie between Anna Weber’s project, “Parenting Styles and Self Esteem,” and Kelsey Payson’s project, “Changes in CO2 in Sugar Kelp.”
“We want them to struggle, be frustrated, and to solve their problems and overcome their challenges,” Lynch said of the participating students. “I have to say most of them did that.”