LANCASTER, Pa. (WHTM) — The concept of a science fair probably elicits a mental image of rows of decorated tri-folds, displays manned by students sharing the results of their hard work, and likely at least one model volcano.

But during COVID-19, the days of halls packed with students, spectators and judges are on hold, so the 2021 North Museum Science and Engineering Fair (NMSEF) was adapted to a virtual format. The typically day-long science fair was spread out over the month of March, with students submitting slideshows and videos about their projects online and judges deliberating via video call.

“At first I was a little bummed that it wasn’t going to be in person because I really do enjoy talking to people,” says Lilly Heilshorn, Hempfield High School senior and the 2021 NMSEF grand champion. Heilshorn has participated and placed in five NMSEF competitions since she was in middle school, and she says discussing her projects and meeting the other contestants is an important part of the experience.

However, Heilshorn says that ultimately, “It was exciting. I think it was just different.”

Lilly Heilshorn, 2021 NMSEF grand champion / Courtesy of Lilly Heilshorn

“A lot of school districts couldn’t pull off their own local science fair this year for obvious reasons, so in many ways, our regional fair took the place of their local fair,” says Andrew Garner, director of strategic partnerships at the North Museum of Nature and Science.

Since the North Museum was already coordinating the virtual technology, many local teachers had students submit work to NMSEF when they couldn’t have their own science fairs. “We were thrilled to hear that, and that’s one of the many reasons why we were happy that we were able to keep the fair this year,” says Garner.

The NMSEF is one of six sanctioned International Science and Engineering Fairs (ISEF) in Pennsylvania, and it is open to all students in Lancaster County. The grand champion and senior champion of the NMSEF advance to the international competition, which will be held virtually in May this year.

Heilshorn was the NMSEF senior champion last year, so this will be her second time at the ISEF. Due to COVID-19, the international contest was virtual last year, as well. While the 2020 virtual event was less of a competition than a conference, Heilshorn is excited that this year’s ISEF will be more like the typical fair with contestant interviews and awards.

Although this school year has been a challenging one, Garner says he was impressed by the projects students submitted to the NMSEF. “The highlight for me that came out of [the virtual science fair] was seeing the level of science that came through and the relevancy of these projects,” says Garner.

Students submitted research on topics like virus mutations, the best masks to wear, the lockdown’s effects on air quality, spotted lanternflies, and environmental sustainability. “[Students’] innovation and their ideas that they come up with are just very inspiring, and really it gives us hope,” says Garner.

Heilshorn’s award-winning project looked at the efficiency of solar pavers — solar panels installed on the ground like panels of pavement — when they’re placed in different ground materials. Tech company Platio loaned a solar paver to Heilshorn for her project. To conduct her research, she built structures filled with different ground samples and tested the paver’s efficiency in the different conditions: grass and soil, cement, polymeric rubber, concrete, brick and standard roof panel.

Heilshorn enjoys doing hands-on research projects, and she plans to pursue civil engineering with a focus on the environment in college. Based on her acceptances so far, she says she’ll likely attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Heilshorn will be joined at the 2021 ISEF by Conestoga Valley High School senior and NMSEF senior champion Joshua Rennekamp. A full list of 2021 NMSEF winners is available on the North Museum’s website.

Garner, echoing the words of a colleague, says, “[Our] faith is always restored in the future by participating and being involved in this science fair.” He hopes next year’s competition can be in person once again.