GNOSEF: Where Young Entrepreneurs Discover Enterprise


Reps from Entergy and a local oil and gas company are already inquiring about ninth grader Grayson Barron’s backpack with a practical application – it converts into a portable desk, and tenth grader Zachary LaBarre is hypothesizing a practical way to tackle two environmental problems unique to New Orleans; too many discarded Mardi Gras beads and potholes that litter the streets.

Both John Curtis Christian high schoolers are presenting their enterprising projects at next week’s Greater New Orleans Science and Engineering Fair (GNOSEF), and both see financial futures in their findings.

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“I have always hated standing up and writing or typing, even with a clipboard,” said 15-year-old Barron. “I decided to engineer a simple solution for this simple problem. I designed a backpack with a built-in desk that folds down that is strong enough to hold a laptop. I think with more research and development, this product could help thousands of in-the-field engineers and others who have to write or type while standing.”

“I go to lots of Mardi Gras parades and have always been fascinated by the street cleaners who try to sweep up all the leftover beads on the ground after a parade,” said 16-year-old LaBarre. “Millions of beads end up in catch basins and clog up the whole drainage system throughout the city. And, living in New Orleans, driving around, you know there are potholes everywhere. My project, ‘Mardi Gras Beads, Fill Potholes, Not Landfills,’ is about using these trashed Mardi Gras beads as an economic solution to fill potholes. Once you pour asphalt over the top, my conclusion is that it’s strong enough to support vehicular traffic. This would solve two big obstacles our city has.”

More than 300 middle and high school students from the Greater New Orleans area will join Barron and LaBarre to showcase their abstracts, analysis, display boards and scientific methods at the 63rd Annual GNOSEF from Monday, Feb. 18, through Thursday, Feb. 21, at the Tulane University Lavin-Bernick Center.

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“This annual gathering of curious young students and dedicated STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers serves as an educational platform for creating a brighter future for everyone in our community,” said GNOSEF co-director Annette Oertling, Ph.D. “As we have for the past 63 years, we are committed to ensuring that students continue to seek collaboration with area students, scientists and engineers while ultimately pursuing STEM careers.”

More than $65,000 in cash and non-cash awards, prizes, grants and scholarships will be awarded to GNOSEF 2019 winners, teachers and schools, including a trip in May for four students and two teachers to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Phoenix, Arizona, which draws more than 1,600 students from 70 countries who vie for more than $4 million in cash awards and prizes. 

Sixty category winners at the GNOSEF will also be eligible to compete for state honors at the Louisiana Science and Engineering Fair to be held at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge next month and go to the Intel ISEF.

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Barron, a science fair veteran who’s won multiple school, regional and state science fair awards and distinctions, is entering his backpack contraption that he’s thinking of calling FOLD in the GNOSEF Engineering category. He said he wished he could have been the original inventor of the nuclear reactor, but would gladly work on a real-life Iron Man suit. “I’m going to construct an exoskeleton for next year,” he said. “One with steel rods and a frame that will distribute weight more efficiently so you can lift really heavy things.”

“The Greater New Orleans Science and Engineering Fair gives kids an opportunity to focus on something they enjoy, pursue a topic outside of the classroom and make it for fun,” said Barron’s mom Jennifer Barron. “He’s an independent worker, and these types of opportunities give him a chance to explore his creative side.”

“I designed, built and tested this innovative backpack, and I looked around and there is no competition in this product category,” said Barron. “If you start a business early, it’s a good thing because it will provide a source of income so you can grow your business, start another, or use it for college so you don’t get into debt. It’s important for kids my age to get other kids interested in STEM and get past the nerdy stereotype.”

LaBarre, who’s also won several science fair awards including a state fair grand prize in seventh grade for comparing the salinity of different natural water supplies found in lakes and rivers, will be competing in the GNOSEF’s Environmental Engineering category this year. He estimates his repurposed Mardi Gras bead implementation will only cost $60 in materials to fill a pothole. He’s hoping the City may find a purposeful use for his data, observations, research and results. “If I win, my next step will be to get a patent,” he said.

Student exhibits will be on display to the public on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons and Thursday morning. Admission is free and open to public. 

Throughout the four-day event on Tulane University’s campus, students will be able to participate in social media contests featuring trivia questions and Instagram photos and videos of their GNOSEF projects and experiences, making them eligible to win a variety of additional prizes.

GNOSEF participants will also log in some time with college students who will take them on tours of the Loyola and Tulane University campuses.

Professor Kim Jovanovich, interim associate dean of Engineering at the University of New Orleans, is a GNOSEF board member who won a certificate at the GNOSEF in 1965 for a Geiger counter that he built in high school. He said if kids today go after STEM careers, they’ll always be in high demand in the workforce.

“The word ‘engineer’ comes from the word ‘ingenuity,’” said Jovanovich. “You have to have imagination to be an engineer. Businesses hire people with creativity and those who believe in a dream. Engineers make those dreams come true.”

“Science fairs are important because you get experience building whatever you want,” said Barron. “You never know what you’re going to see when you’re there that could inspire your next big idea.”

LaBarre, who wishes he had invented the microwave because he’s perpetually mesmerized by how it heats up food so fast, agrees. “It gets your creative juices flowing,” he said of the regional science fair. “As a kid you always have new ideas, and you have the time to really think about them. It’s a creative time of life. I’m really excited to get there and speak to people about my Mardi Gras bead idea. Going to the Greater New Orleans Science and Engineering Fair gives me a good feeling every year.”

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