Cambria high school student dives into research

PATTON – While most in the region are awaiting spring, a Cambria Heights High School junior spent his winter waiting for the perfect cold conditions so he could dive below the ice in local lakes and quarries.

Zach Stoltz, 16, of St. Augustine, has been using the scuba training he completed as a freshman to collect water samples for a scientific study he hopes to submit this spring for regional and statewide competitions.

“This is what you want to have happen in education,” said Tim Laurito, Cambria Heights High School principal and Stoltz’s project supervisor.

Laurito, along with an assistant certified scuba instructor, oversaw training of a group of 10 students – five each from Cambria Heights and Northern Cambria – as part of a grant the schools received in 2012.

The goal, Laurito said, was for the students to put their training to use and further their interest in science and research. But of the 10 students, only Stoltz looked to use scuba after the grant money ran out, he said.

“He’s one of the few who has really taken it … above and beyond,” Laurito said. “He’s one of those kids who is pursuing a science career.”

Stoltz said although the grant didn’t continue as long as the school had hoped, it still allowed him the chance to experience underwater diving, which helped generate his project hypotheses.

“I’m going to start with just a basic idea, and that’s just the visibility of water that has frozen over. I want to test and see if the visibility is better underwater when there’s ice on top, versus when there’s not,” he told the Mirror in December.

After some test dives, temperatures dropped, and Stoltz was able to collect several samples from dives underneath 6-inch-thick ice at Blue Hole Quarry near Williamsburg.

One method of collecting data involved marking off a string with measurements and having a second diver swim out to measure visibility, Stoltz said.

Although Stoltz conducted the test on an overcast day, he said he was able to see a diver underwater from more than 30 feet away under the ice. Under normal conditions at the quarry, a diver is lucky to see 5 feet in front of him, Stoltz said, confirming his hypothesis that water becomes clearer the colder it is.

His second hypothesis, that the water would be clearer closer to the ice, also was confirmed using turbidity tests using water collected from right under the ice, 15 feet down and near the bottom at 30 feet.

The data will be used as part of a two-year study. Stoltz said he’ll be submitting the winter data to the upcoming Pennsylvania Junior Science Association competition in March.

When he is able to collect springtime data, the full study will be submitted for next year’s competition, as well.

“The tricky thing with science fairs is being able to come up with that one project that no one can duplicate,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone else who can do this testing.”

For that, he said, he is thankful for the grant and for Laurito’s help, which has allowed Stoltz a mentor who is available at the

school whenever he has questions.

“There’s no way to thank Mr. Laurito enough for giving me this opportunity,” he said. “And there’s no way my parents would have let me do this by myself,” Stoltz added.

Laurito, who is retiring at the end of the school year, said he’s proud of what Stoltz has been able to accomplish.

“He is an outstanding student. He is a good community person, does a lot of things, and he … is competing for scholarships,” Laurito said. “He’s one of the few kids I’m willing to do this with.”

With the fair only a few weeks away, Stoltz said he’s excited to compete and hopes to place high.

“My expectation is to hopefully grab people’s, and the judges’ and colleges’, eye. How many other people can do this scuba diving?” he said. “I’m going for that rarity factor, so they take that second glance at a project.”

But the chance to work on the study in the field and confirm his theories was a great reward as well, he said.

“I’ve always just liked being in water, swimming in general. It’s just another experience that I get to add to it,” he said. “Being underwater makes me feel at home, kind of. It’s a neat experience. … How many other people get to do it? Especially my age.”