Grace Gibbons, 14, right, from Mount Airy, draws calligraphy during the Silk Road-themed STARTALK science fair at Howard Community College in Columbia.
Grace Gibbons, 14, right, from Mount Airy, draws calligraphy during the Silk Road-themed STARTALK science fair at Howard Community College in Columbia. (Gabriella Demczuk, Baltimore Sun)

Grace Gibbons of Mount Airy has worked with horses most of her life, so the rising high school sophomore was fascinated by a Chinese language class at Howard Community College that focused on the development of horse harnesses.

"When harnesses started out, they were inefficient because they would choke the horse," said Gibbons. "But different Chinese farmers and inventors worked together to develop a new type of harness that rested against the horse's chest. They went from having a team of horses pull half a ton to one horse pull a ton and a half."

Gibbons was among more than 120 high school students who staged an international science fair last week as part of STARTALK, a initiative by the federal government that teaches high school students languages the government regards as strategically important. The program at HCC offers Arabic, Persian, Mandarin and Hindi.

While in recent years the program has focused on language and culture, the program this year focuses on science, including many inventions and products from lands where the four languages are spoken.

The students devised more than 70 science fair experiments and exhibits that centered on the Silk Road, a historical network of trading routes that linked North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

HCC has been awarded a grant for STARTALK every year since the program's inception six years ago via the Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland. HCC officials say the school offers the only student program outside California that has received a grant to teach Persian.

The students hail from Howard, Frederick and Carroll counties as well as Baltimore City and Washington. HCC officials said students who are successful in the program earn four college credits from HCC.

The tuition-free program, which began in June and ends Aug. 2, is held four days a week. Some say it is a welcome summertime alternative to countless hours in the mall or at home in front of the television.

"STARTALK students are very different from high school students. They are very self-motivated," said Yulan Liu, a STARTALK instructor for Hindi and Chinese. "It's college-level learning. They are required to do the work like a college student."

Gibbons, who works with horses at Talbot Run Equestrian Center in Mount Airy, said that the harness was introduced to Europe via the Silk Road and "the whole world became a lot more efficient through agriculture."

"Because there were all these inventions along the Silk Road, societies progressed," said Cheryl Berman, HCC director of world languages and STARTALK. "We wanted the students to be involved in understanding how the inventions along the Silk Road helped develop literature, sciences, the arts, everything."

Arabic students made cheese and offered demonstrations on geometric tessellations, the zodiac and cartography. The Hindi class focused on medicinal spices. The Persian class made ice cream. The Chinese class demonstrated the abacus and made paper, which Liu said allowed instructors to infuse a recycling component into the program.

Jamshaid Shahir, a rising junior from Woodstock, created an exhibit about cataract surgery, which he said originated in India in the 18th century B.C.

One group made a seismograph out of a flower pot, straws, marbles and origami frogs. The exhibit said the seismograph was invented in A.D. 132.

Christian Badolato, a rising senior from Marriottsville, and Sydney Littmann, a rising senior from Laurel, made ice cream with saffron-infused milk, vanilla and sugar. The two placed the ingredients in a plastic bag, then put that bag in a larger plastic bag filled with ice and salt and shook it until the ingredients froze.

Littmann said that the STARTALK science fair experiment was easier to come up with than a regular science fair experiment. "It's a lot less formal than school, but it's a lot more fun," she said.

Other group members staged a mock Arab wedding and made henna tattoos.

"We want students to take away a sense of international community," said Berman, "so that when they encounter people from other cultures, they are mentally prepared. We want them to take away the fact that it's not necessary to judge a culture but to look at it, respect it and accept it."