Before you put your mask on and head out the door in the morning, have you ever considered the bacterial growth it could hold? Perham High School senior Elayna Kawlewski tested the growth of three different types of bacteria on four different types of masks for the 2021 Minnesota State Science & Engineering Fair. While Kawlewski needs to run trials with a bigger population, she was still able to draw some conclusions.

Through her research, she found that surgical masks are the safest to wear. On average, they had the lowest amount of bacterial growth. According to Kawlewski, the N95 mask had the highest amount of mold and yeast growth. She doesn't recommend wearing it if you have a mold or yeast allergy.

Kawlewski also discovered that the cloth mask had the highest amount of aerobic bacteria, which can cause breakouts and harm already-sensitive skin. Throughout her experiment, she also found that a UV light killed over 50% of bacterial growth on masks.

For Kawlewski's hard work, she received the First Place High School prize at the 2021 Minnesota State Science & Engineering Fair in The International Society for Optics & Photonics special award category.

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Nine total Perham High School students competed in the state science fair from March 26-March 28 after moving forward from the regional competition. Four of these nine students received awards at the state level.

“This isn’t the old ‘make a volcano’ science fair but real world exploration,” Perham science research advisor Shawn Stafki said.

There are two types of awards at the science fair: medals awarded to the top projects overall and the special awards. The latter are given by industries and governmental groups. Each victory won by Perham students were special awards.

The winning students are as follows:

  • Elayna Kawlewski: Received the First Place High School award in The International Society for Optics & Photonics from SPIE with a prize of $250 for her project, The Study of Bacterial Growth on Different Face Masks

  • Audrey Tumberg: Received the Third Place High School award from the MN Environmental Health Association and a prize of $50 for her project, Study of the Correlation Between Water Bottle Materials / Styles and Bacterial Growth

  • Jaxon Bain: Received the Geoscience, Environmental Science or Sustainability Excellence Award from Mortenson Environmental for his project, Investigation on the Correlation of Dressena polymorpha and Scirpus acutus in Aquatic Ecosystems

  • Clara Tangen: Received the Second Place High School award in The International Society for Optics & Photonics from SPIE with a prize of $150 for her project, Not All Sun and Games: A Study on the Effectiveness of Sun Preventatives

"Because of the current situation; the science fair itself was not the most enjoyable part but rather the journey to the science fair was more enjoyable," Kawlewski said. "It was so much fun to see my fellow researchers working on their projects. We spent a lot of time together the first three months in class, and it was fun to share our progress together."

Elena Kawlewski presents her project, "Study of Bacterial Growth on Different Face Masks" for the 2021 Minnesota Science Fair (Elena Kawlewski).
Elena Kawlewski presents her project, "Study of Bacterial Growth on Different Face Masks" for the 2021 Minnesota Science Fair (Elena Kawlewski).

Junior Audrey Tumberg's favorite part of her experience was the sense of accomplishment. According to her, she was able to explore the wonders of the scientific world through her experiment. She also enjoyed having scientific discussions with the judges.

"I am incredibly thankful and grateful to have gotten this experience," Tumberg said. "I also feel a strong sense of appreciation to those, like Mr. Stafki, who helped guide and mentor us on the way to this opportunity."

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this competition took place virtually. Students presented their projects in a YouTube video. After judges watched these, they would interview the students over zFairs.

According to Stafki, this platform is a lot like Zoom. “It was a bit frustrating, to be honest, because the platform would cut in and out, but I am proud of how many students stayed with it without getting too frustrated,” he said.

Typically, Stafki hopes to win two awards yearly. According to him, this made winning four fun to see.

“I am incredibly proud of all the Perham students who competed this year,” Stafki said, “If you had asked me prior to the start of the school year, I would not have predicted that (this) would have happened. So again, I am really proud of them all.”