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Featured Projects

Road Conditions Inspire Eighth Grader to Investigate Concrete Corrosion

CorrDefense Featured Interview

Standing before the poster display of her "Rusty Concrete" project during the 2012 Broadcom MASTERS national competition, Lisa Criscione holds a two-inch-diameter PVC (polyvinyl chloride) cylindrical mold that she used to make a concrete sample. Below the mold, in her right hand, she holds an actual concrete sample that was corroded in the corrosion cell. Photo by IML Photography, SSP (Society for Science and the Public).

A year ago 13-year-old Lisa Criscione noticed that a fairly young, rebar-reinforced concrete street near her house in Seven Hills, Ohio, showed signs of severe rusting similar to a nearby road that had seen a half-century of wear. Criscione, then an eighth-grader at Incarnate Word Academy, wondered why the younger street was rusting just as badly as the older one. The question led her to formulate the hypothesis and central question of her award-winning research into the causes of corrosion in concrete.

In this CorrDefense featured interview, editor-at-large Cynthia Greenwood talks with Criscione about the provenance and evolution of her 2011-2012 science fair project, which piqued the interest of two University of Akron engineering professors and the Defense Department Corrosion Policy and Oversight Office. Criscione's science project—"Rusty Concrete: Will Too Much Water Corrode Concrete Faster?"—earned numerous local, district, and state fair awards, recognitions from five national professional societies, and a place in the Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars) national competition that was held in Washington D.C. from September 28-October 3, 2012. It is an advanced competition that allows sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders to demonstrate their science, engineering, and math skills through hands-on team activities. Currently Criscione is in the ninth grade at Walsh Jesuit High School.

CorrDefense: Exactly how did you come up with the idea for your science fair project?

Lisa Criscione: When I noticed that a 50-year-old road in my neighborhood was rusting just as badly as a nearby road that was much newer, I thought about it and remembered that the younger road had been built in the rain. That's how I came up with my hypothesis—"If too much water is in the concrete mix, the faster the rust will appear on the concrete surface."

CorrDefense: I understand that you gave up on the idea of performing the necessary laboratory experiments in your house basement and sought help from several companies and area universities.

Lisa Criscione: Yes, my mother did not want me setting up cement samples and trying to cut rebar in our basement. So she contacted the deans of several local civil engineering departments and the Society of Women Engineers. She was told to contact Dr. Anil Patnaik, a professor in the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Akron (UA). She asked Dr. Patnaik if he could help me accelerate corrosion for my science project.

CorrDefense: Whom did you work with at UA and how did you conduct your experiment?

Working in The University of Akron Corrosion Lab in October 2011, Lisa Criscione pours a saltwater solution (electrolyte) into the container until the water touches the concrete sample. Also pictured is the corrosion cell used to accelerate corrosion. Photo by Freda Criscione.

Lisa Criscione: I was invited to join Dr. Patnaik's team of three undergraduates and two graduate students. One of the grad students, Jeremy Lewis, was my supervisor and mentor. He helped me understand the chemistry I needed for my research. In the university's Corrosion Lab, I made two batches of concrete with varying levels of water content and ended up with four samples from each batch. I reinforced each sample with rebar so it would be like the roads in my neighborhood. I let them cure. Then I took one sample from each batch and hooked it up to a corrosion cell. I ran an electrical current through each of them. I used a Webcam to record when rust first appeared on the surface of the sample. After two days, from the videos, I could determine that the sample with more water corroded faster than the one with less water. You could clearly see the rust showing. I repeated the experiment three more times and got the same results. It proved my hypothesis was right.

CorrDefense: What calculations did you use to account for chemical changes that were taking place?

Lisa Criscione: I used Faraday's Law to determine the amp setting needed for the target level of corrosion. I needed .2 amps to generate two percent corrosion. When the concrete has more water, the extra water in the sample causes microscopic air pockets to form. These large pockets make a maze for the rust to follow. Because the pores were bigger, there was less of a tortuous path for the rust to follow. In contrast, the concrete sample with less water formed a more complicated maze for the rust to follow.

CorrDefense: What are the most important implications of your conclusions?

Lisa Criscione: The more water concrete contains, the faster rust will appear on its surface. The corrosion of roads and bridges costs taxpayers billions of dollars and poses a safety risk. I like this project because I'm interested in making Ohio a safer place to live.

CorrDefense: When did you start exhibiting your project? I understand that in addition to Anil Patnaik, you interacted with Joe Payer, the chief scientist and research program director of the UA National Center for Education and Research on Corrosion and Materials Performance (NCERCAMP), and Rich Hays, deputy director of the DoD Corrosion Office.

Lisa Criscione: I gave a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation in front of Dr. Patnaik's team and Dr. Joe Payer, who listened to the presentations. Dr. Payer then invited me to display my project on a poster at the Department of Defense Corrosion Conference at UA last December, alongside those of the other college students who attended. I got to meet Mr. Richard Hays at the conference. His presentation helped me realize what a big problem corrosion is for our military. At the conference I was allowed to discuss my project and ideas with UA professors and other corrosion professionals. It helped prepare me for my future science fairs. I went on to compete in two local science fairs, a district fair, the state fair of Ohio, the Northeast Ohio Science and Engineering Fair (NEOSEF), and the Broadcom MASTERS national competition.

CorrDefense: : I understand there were over 60,000 middle school students who participated in Society for Science and the Public-affiliated fairs across the U.S. last year, and the Broadcom MASTERS is one of those programs. The top 10 percent were nominated for the national Broadcom MASTERS science competition. You were one of the 30 finalists selected to attend Broadcom MASTERS. What were a few of the highlights of your competition week in Washington D.C. with the other finalists?

During the Broadcom MASTERS national event, Lisa Criscione talks with Rich Hays, deputy director of the DoD Corrosion Policy and Oversight Office, which funds programs benefiting students at The University of Akron Corrosion Lab. Photo by IML Photography, SSP.

Lisa Criscione: It was very interesting—I experienced the transition from being a top student in my science class to being one of many smart people who have the same interests as me. We all became instant friends. Besides the individual poster session competition, we competed in nine team challenge activities – one for each of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) areas. In one challenge, we had to research the problems involved in fracking and why it's such an important environmental safety issue. In another challenge activity we got to build a house out of Popsicle sticks but it had to be built to survive a hurricane. We had to use the materials available to us, and we couldn't exceed our budget. Even though my team didn't win the STEM challenges, I did end up having an asteroid named after me. How many kids can say that?

CorrDefense: I understand that you took first place in Chemistry at the Northeast Ohio Science and Engineering Fair, where you spoke with 15 judges. Tell us about your experience talking to the judges.

Lisa Criscione: At first I was really nervous. I double-checked my notes every chance I got. Once I realized that my judges weren't going to grill me alive, I grew more relaxed. I had intelligent conversations with the judges about real-life applications of my project and answered every question they threw at me. One judge wanted to know where cement came from and how it was made; I talked to her for half an hour on that question alone. Another judge came up and asked me what exactly rust was. Once I gave him my definition, he said, "You just explained that better than any of the college students I teach." That caught me by surprise! Throughout the duration of the fair, I gave a seemingly endless presentation of my project. More and more judges kept coming up to listen to me. I ended up talking for about three hours straight. Only once did I get a ten-minute break!

CorrDefense: When you conceived the idea for the "Rusty Concrete" project, with whom did you work with initially at Incarnate Word Academy?

Lisa Criscione: My science teacher was Mrs. Cynthia Rossman, and she required all of us to do a science fair project in seventh grade. It was optional in eight grade. She gave me a timeline and checklist to follow. Mrs. Rossman reviewed my proposal and made sure I was following the scientific method and using the right reference materials. At Incarnate Word, I was the only student interested in corrosion and civil engineering.

CorrDefense: Given your success over the past year, what new projects and career options are you contemplating?

Lisa Criscione: : I'm doing another science fair project this year involving designing basalt fiber/steel concrete reinforcements. Since my experience in the UA Corrosion Lab, I'm now more focused on science rather than history. I'm thinking about studying corrosion engineering in college. Some day I think it would be nice if I could work in the lab, but I'm more interested in seeing if the products tested in the lab actually work in a real-world situation.

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