Freshmen researchers reflect on engineering project to test types of biodegradable material


Arely Sun

Freshmen Alice Feng and Arely Sun stand in front of an Environmental Engineering poster at the 2018 California Science and Engineering Fair. Their project, which eventually won first place, was titled “The Effect of Mushroom Species and Substrates on the Properties of a Novel Biodegradable Material: Mycelium.”

by Arya Maheshwari and Anmol Velagapudi

Attention to research at the upper school often focuses on the achievements of upperclassmen, like with the results of the recent Regeneron Science Talent Search. But research experience and success is not exclusive to only juniors and seniors: freshman Alice Feng, for her part, has already picked up a national championship.

Alice won first place in the Engineering category at the 2018 Broadcom MASTERS finalists science competition, which took place from Oct. 19 to Oct. 24 in Washington D.C., for an eight grade science research project she conducted with Arely Sun (9) titled “The Effect of Mushroom Species and Substrates on the Properties of a Novel Biodegradable Material: Mycelium.”

“Mycelium is basically the root of a mushroom; it’s made out of cotton-like things called hyphae. Mycelium has ability to bind particles together,” Alice said. “[In the project,] mycelium grows on different types of agricultural waste products, which are all completely organic, which means that they are beneficial to the environment and also won’t harm the environment.”

The project’s main focus was to test and analyze the various properties of the materials created when mycelium interacted with different types of agricultural waste product, as Alice notes, due to a lack of extensive testing on the properties of mycelium materials.

“We tested different combinations of mushroom species grown on agricultural waste product to compare their strength, insulation, soundproofing, and electromagnetic radiation shielding,” Alice said. “We also tested how they would affect plants when [the combinations] were put in the soil of the plants, and also how well they would fare in liquids of different pH values.”

Alice and Arely found that the products generated had impressive results due to its potential as a material as well as its organic, environmentally friendly method of creation.

“It turns out not only are these bricks [of mycelium material] durable and lightweight, they also kind of act like a fertilizer and they promote plant growth,” Arely said. “They can be used to replace wood, styrofoam, and possibly cement in the future.”

The inspiration for the project came from a visit to the Tech Museum, a museum of science and technology located in San Jose.

“I go to the Tech Museum and other science museums a lot, and the Tech Museum had a really small exhibit on mycelium. I was really interested in it because I thought it had a lot of potential,” Alice said. “I did some more research on it, and that’s how my partner and I came up with the project.”

After competing in the California Science and Engineering Fair as a team, Alice and Arely both qualified for the Broadcom MASTERS Top 300, and Alice went on to the Broadcom MASTERS finalists week competition. There, while participating in activities from coding with a Raspberry Pi board to designing shark trackers, Alice found that in the final stage of her journey, the emphasis was placed on teamwork.

“We were all put into teams — there are six teams of five people in each team — and we just stayed with this team for the week we were there,” Alice said. “Each team was pretty diverse: people from across the country from different grade levels and both genders. It was really interesting to see the different people there.”

Though the project has already yielded successful results, there are still many ways that Alice and Arely see to extend their project given additional resources.

If we had a lab, we would try to genetically modify the mycelium to give the mycelium material even more properties, to grow even faster, and to reduce the risk of contamination,” Alice said.