A Student’s Journey to City Science Fair | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

A Student's Journey to City Science Fair

Jonathan Gaston had lots of reasons to skip out on school, but he didn't. When we met the middle schooler last spring, he was headed off to compete in Chicago's city-wide science fair along with 300 other students. It wasn't the competition but the difficult circumstances of his life that made his story a memorable one.

Many teens take up sports to gain confidence and get involved at school. Not 14 year-old Jonathan Gaston.

GASTON: I don't know why, but I just do not like to sweat. And it stanks to me.

He used to be shy, mostly because he moved around to a lot of different schools. When eighth grade came, he made a conscious decision.

GASTON: I wanted to break out of my shell, so I turned to science.

Enter Joy Reeves, Claremont Academy's science specialist.

REEVES: We had this after school club called “Serious about science Fair.”
 
He took up microbiology, even though at the time, he wasn't quite sure what it was.

GASTON: I was in it to win it. I was faithful to the program.

And when Jonathan says “win it,” he means it all. Today through Sunday, he presents at the city-wide fair, competing with almost 120 of Chicago's most science-minded middle schoolers. If he wins, he goes on to state finals. But first things, first.

GASTON: My science project was testing to see if cinnamon of oils really killed germs.
HEIKENEN-WEISS: Cinnamon of what?
GASTON: Cinnamons of oil.

The inspiration behind Jonathan's project comes from a University of Chicago study. It found that “Big Red” kills more bacteria than other gum. The key ingredient? Cinnamon. Jonathan's experiment tests the same theory, but with mouthwash instead of gum.

GASTON: cinnamon and mint mouthwash

The work was time-consuming, eating up chunks of Jonathan's days after school for five months…but for him, school is sometimes a refuge.

GASTON: We've been staying in the shelter on the South Side.

Jonathan, his four brothers and sisters and their mom have been staying at a shelter that's a 90 minute commute from Jonathan's school. Still, his attendance is steady--A testament to his devotion and determination that contradicts his upbringing.

GASTON: I went to a lot of elementary schools. From kindergarten all the way through 8th grade, I'd probably say I went to 10 elementary schools. The main reason was because housing wasn't affordable and we had to live with people or stay at different places, had to go to the school within the area. At Claremont, Jonathan felt a rapport with his teacher, Ms. Joy Reeves.

GASTON: Some teachers can help you to a certain level, and Mrs. Reeves went beyond that level.
REEVES: I think our personalities meshed.

And so, the two of them have been working hard to make sure that Jonathan succeeds at his science project, even though there have been bumps in the road. Science fair rules prohibited him from testing with bacteria from animals, so he found a solution by buying a different kind of bacteria.

GASTON: Everything started working out, then she was like, “We gotta grow it!” I'm like, “How we going to grow it?”

He incubated the bacteria with store-bought cinnamon and mint mouthwash, along his homemade kind, too. Jonathan and Reeves even came in on a Saturday to get the experiment's timing just right.
 
GASTON: So the two cinnamons did kill the most germs. The LaVore's cinnamon came in first, and my homemade cinnamon came in second.

Jonathan says he wasn't surprised when he won the school and then area fair.

GASTON: It do change the way I feel. I really didn't have nothing for people to see me as a leader. Now, people are starting to look up to me and see me as a role model.

COLEMAN: I call him “Gaston,” cause that's his last name.

Steven Coleman works security at Claremont

COLEMAN: And he's a leader amongst the guys. A real scholar. Always helping the other guys out, even with their ties, ‘cause they tie ties every morning.

At home, his role is much the same.

GASTON: Sometimes I just feel like I'm just here to help give encouragement to my mom and my family so that we can make it and can find housing.
THOMPSON: You know, it's built within. When you struggle a long time, you push yourself, because it's something that you want to do.

Sharita Thompson is Jonathan's older cousin.

THOMPSON: He wants to get older and take care of his family or whatever, ‘cause it's a lot of them, you know?

Getting older right now is exciting. It looks like they might move into apt., and he's scheduled to graduate from middle school this year. In the meantime, he's keeping an eye on the prize.

GASTON: I really really hope I win.

What would winning mean?

GASTON: Winning to me means to set goals for life and to see if I can achieve them by at least going half way.
 
Jonathan says he's half way right now…and ready to win.

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