Sarah Jenkins took her lifelong passion for protecting the endangered Hawaiian coot and turned it into a science fair project that earned first place at the Hawaii State Science and Engineering Fair April 7-9 at the Hawaii Convention Center.
The Molokai High School 10th grader created artificial floating nesting structures at the Pipio Pond in the Mapulehu area to help improve the reproductive success of the native bird. The implementation was so successful that Jenkins took first place for best Senior Research Project in the Animal Science Category from the Hawaii Academy of Science.
The project had already won second place overall at the 54th annual Maui Schools’ Science and Engineering Fair in January. The Maui recognition earned her a spot at the INTEL Science and Engineering Fair taking place in Phoenix, Ariz. May 11-18.
Sarah’s sister Lilly also won first place in her category at the state fair. The Molokai Middle School eighth grader’s project, titled, “Effects of Pistia strateotis (Water Lettuce) in Man-Made Canal at Puko’o Pond” took first place in the Junior Research Best of Plant Science category.
Lilly’s project also earned the Hawaii Conservation Alliance Outstanding Achievement Award; the Gamma Sigma Delta Honor Society of Agriculture Award; the Conservation Council for Hawaii Award; second place Junior Research Division — Hawaii Botanical Society; the Broadcom Masters Award and the NOAA Pacific Region Award for Best Junior Research Project. Her science teacher, Scott Hemenway, earned the Teacher Recognition award and a $50 cash prize.
For Sarah, her project was a natural extension of her interest in the Hawaiian coot. She has been an avid birder since she began volunteering in fourth grade with Molokai bird specialist Arleone Dibben-Young.
“She’s my mentor and is actually the reason why I got the idea for my project,” said Jenkins. “ I grew up in the area where I conducted my study and I knew, based on working with her, that there’s a Hawaiian coot population occupying the pond and that is what made me want to do my project there.”
Jenkins began her observations at the pond on the Chow property in Mapulehu in October of last year. “Before I put in the artificial nesting structures I wanted to see if I improved their populations if they would able to sustain themselves,” she said.
One of the project’s challenges was to determine whether or not these artificial nesting structures would prove sustainable. “I didn’t want to increase the population and have them not able to survive,” she said. “So I did a bunch of baseline data at the pond and found different resources that they would naturally have and did a bunch of background research … once I found out that they would be able to sustain themselves I came up with a design for my artificial nesting structure and implemented it.”
Conducting the study in an area of a mangrove forest where predator controls are taking place also presented challenges. “My study was actually the first of its kind in a mangrove forest of the Hawaiian Coot. A lot of (the judges) were really impressed by what I did.”
“Because it is an endangered species I didn’t want to harm them in any way so it was really specific. I had to think outside the box to look at all different points of view so I wouldn’t harm them.”
Acting like a professional field biologist in collecting observational data and implementing it clearly impressed the judges. “I never thought I would get that far,” she said. “A lot of projects that we do here on Molokai are trying to improve Molokai while projects from other islands are more research projects like astronomy and physics projects so I didn’t think I would go that far. When I got the agency awards I was so excited.”
Jenkins thanked the Molokai Fire Department for donating their old fire hose used to build her design. She also thanks Doug Campbell who allowed her to test the buoyancy of the artificial islands in the Cooke Pool.
Jenkins said she wants to be a wildlife ecologist and get into wildlife resource management. “It is something I am really passionate about.”