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Thomas Jefferson High School junior Julia Arthur, 17, beamed with excitement as she navigated the bustling hallways of her school.

The school’s hallways were unusually crowded with students, as well as visitors coming for the annual tjSTAR — the Thomas Jefferson Symposium to Advance Research event. In its fourth year, tjSTAR is an end of the year exhibition displaying student research projects, demonstrations and lectures from guest speakers who work in science, technology, engineering and math fields and game-like challenges for students such as LEGO engineering, egg drops, gum drop tower building and more.

For many of the students at TJ, however, the main attraction of the all-day event is the senior research project presentations.

“It’s a really nice way to showcase all the hard work they’ve been doing over the last four years,” Arthur said. “This is kind of a day for me to go around and see what my peers are doing. For the seniors, this last month has been a push to get their projects done.”

Arthur entered a biology lab where senior Erin Slatery, 18, set up her PowerPoint presentation called “The Downside of Tuberculosis: Latency.”

During a 10-minute presentation before about 25 fellow students, parents and teachers, Slatery explained how she conducted her research, experiment and some of her findings.

Juniors, sophomores and freshmen play the role of on-lookers, hoping to gain some insight and ideas for their own senior research projects — a requirement of all students graduating from the regional governor’s school.

Students enrolled in different presentation, demonstration and lecture sessions online before tjSTAR day. Their attendance is checked by teachers, who monitor sessions. No classes take place on tjSTAR day.

“As a freshman, it was fun to present any kind of research I had done and aspire to what the seniors were doing,” said Slatery, who will attend Harvard University next year. “It’s a little bit of a relief [to be done presenting]. It’s been a stressful year. There were a lot of things I didn’t know how to do, but now I feel more confident.”

Slatery’s parents were among those parents who visited the school to watch their child present. Filming his daughter’s presentation from the second row, John Slatery said he was pleased with how well Erin presented.

“tjstar offers a great culminating activity to showcase TJ student achievements but more importantly offers students a phenomenal experience for learning, presenting and teaching others,” John Slatery. “The presenters are given the opportunity for engaging audiences in a formal pre-professional setting. For underclassmen it provides them insight into research and the potential for results whether conclusive or inconclusive. For all students there is a recognition of the potential practical implications of their work beyond the classroom or even the lab which may provide some focus and motivation for the years to come.”

Teachers at TJ said gaining this experience on how to present research in everyday terms is an important skill for students.

The event began as a less formal evening meeting of teachers and students, allowing students to see their peers’ works while teachers gave advice on bettering presentations.

Marine Biology teacher Lisa Wu was among those who initiated this evening program before it became tjSTAR. Wu also runs a senior research lab for students with oceanography and geophysical systems research projects.

“We don’t look at this as the absolute end point of the year. They still have several weeks left [of school],” she said.

Senior research projects are a mandatory part of TJ’s specialized curriculum. Students begin their projects during summer internships between their junior and senior year, or in the fall. As part of the project, students must present their projects and write a research paper. Wu said it is up to the teacher to decide whether presentation performances during tjSTAR will be part of the research final grade or not.

“The younger students here at TJ, [some of] who are also presenting today, can see what their older peers are able to do,” Wu said. “The upper classman are supposed to see younger classmates’ presentations and give them advice.”

One such underclassman is freshman Morgan Sizemore, 15, who presented her research on the effects of temperature on fecal coliform.

“It gives us an opportunity to work on our presentation skills. We learn how to put everything together,” Sizemore said. “At the end of the presentations, you are able to get a lot of ideas about what you can do” better for the next presentation as well as for your senior research project.

TJ draws students from Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Fauquier and Arlington counties, as well as the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church. Because of this lack of hometown high school feel, the school hosts many spirit building events throughout the year.

“TJ does work really hard to foster a sense of community,” Arthur said.

Erin Slatery agreed, saying, “[tjSTAR] is really important to the STEM community and the role of this school. … It’s fun to know that everyone is going through what you’re going through.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com