Science, scouting and Styrofoam proved to be a silver medal combination for a 14-year-old Oxford student.

Before he started his freshman year at Oxford High School, Keerthin Karthikeyan won a silver medal at the Genius Olympiad in New York this summer. His science fair project took Styrofoam, converted it to a charcoal-like substance and used it as a filter to clean water. Keerthin, who is preparing for the final step to become an Eagle Scout, was featured in Scouting Magazine’s online blog this month.

Many people think of Scouting as focused on outdoor activities and science something that happens in an indoor lab, said Keerthin, who is the son of Karthinkeyan Rathinavelu and Premalatha Balacharndran.

“They don’t make the connection between science and nature,” Keerthin said. “Scouting makes a great bridge between nature and science.”

Scouting’s outdoor code stresses the importance of being conservation-minded. Addressing a global environmental problem of Styrofoam waste with scientific method married both of Keerthin’s interests.

Keerthin, who has participated in school science fairs since second grade, has been working with Styrofoam for science projects for two years. The first project for his seventh grade science project took shape when he noticed fruit peels sitting in a Styrofoam cup left scratches. For the project, he was able to use citrus oils to break down the Styrofoam. The resulting sludge-like material could be used as glue, a hardening agent for other materials or as a sticky webbing to catch insects.

For the eighth grade science fair, he wanted to see if could reduce the Styrofoam even more.

From Scouting, he knew that wood could be converted to charcoal if it was burned in an oxygen-free environment like covered with dirt.

Both Styrofoam and wood contain high concentrations of carbon, Keerthin said. Carbon molecules have a high surface area and can trap contaminants and bacteria.

Supervised by his mom, Premalatha Balcachandran, a senior scientist at the University of Mississippi National Center for Natural Products Research, Keerthin used a dry heat blocker to char the Styrofoam, reducing a 1-foot cube to a couple of grams of material. He used phosphoric acid to activate the carbon.

“It makes the carbon more porous,” Keerthin said.

He tested the effectiveness of the material, which he dubbed Styro-Carbon, on contaminated water.

“The Styro-Carbon was more effective than commercial filters,” Keerthin said.

Keerthin’s project advanced, winning first place awards at the school, regional and state level. He was selected as a Genius Olympiad finalist to represent Mississippi at the regional level and won Best of Fair for Class 3 at the state science fair.

Preparing for the Genius Olympiad was intense, Keerthin said. He had to change his board display to a poster so it could be transported. He had to sharpen his presentation for the olympiad judges, too.

“It was probably the hardest competition I’ve ever been to,” Keerthin said. “It was the most amazing experience I’ve had.”

There were 1,500 projects from 79 countries and 43 states at the Genius Olympiad; 842 of the projects were entered in the science category.

As the silver medal award winner, Keerthin has been invited to have his work published in the International Journal of High School Research.

“It’s really exciting,” Keerthin said. “Other researchers will be able to see my work and test it.”

As he starts his freshman year of high school, Keerthin is preparing for marching season as a percussionist with the Oxford High School Band. He is also getting ready for his board of review, the last step toward earning the Eagle Scout rank.

He is thinking about possible careers in pediatrics, political science or ecology-focused entrepreneurship. All are inspired by his interest in science and values emphasized by Scouting.

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