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A rewarding challenge

Preparation for the Hernando County Regional Science and Engineering Fair is a foot in the door for some students.

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 13, 2003

The three months that Michael Lambraia devoted to working on his high school science project was just a prelude to his all-important task of selling his work to the judges of the Hernando County Regional Science and Engineering Fair last week.

Dressed neatly in a button-down shirt and tie, the 15-year-old Springstead High freshman seemed eager to explain his project, which detailed the effects of high acid solutions on young radish plants.

"It does make you a little nervous because they want to know every detail concerning how you reached your conclusion," said Michael. "But I don't mind it, that's part of the process -- defending your work."

The annual exposition is something of a talent showcase for the area's middle and high school age science students. From simple botanical observations to advanced medical theories, the range of work presented is traditionally quite impressive considering the age of the participants.

"This is where it all starts," said Springstead High science teacher Craig Gates, who has organized the event for the past 12 years. "You look around here and you see kids that are curious, need-to-know people. I always tell people that here's where you'll find our future doctors, engineers and inventors."

One of them might be Fox Chapel Middle School eighth-grader Andrew Oakes, who experimented with low-voltage electrical charges on vegetable seedlings to see whether electro-energy fields affected growth rates.

For two months, he subjected groups of plants to daily doses of 3-volt and 6-volt battery currents. He then noted their heights and compared them to plants that received no electric charge. His conclusion: low voltage greatly improved growth rates.

"I got the idea from seeing corn and stuff growing underneath power lines, and I wanted to know if it made any difference in how things grew," Andrew said. "I was really surprised at how well they did. Who knows, maybe someday farmers can use electricity to make crops grow faster."

But, for some students, the science fair offers an opportunity for valuable recognition in what they hope will be a future career. Fourteen-year-old Courtney Rumala, who aspires to be a plant geneticist, spent the entire summer at the University of Florida working on her project, which dealt with a pest-resistant strain of corn.

By using the university's state-of-the-art biological research facilities, the Hernando Christian Academy freshman conducted dozens of complex experiments and later collected and compiled the data.

"It was a very valuable experience for me," said Courtney. "I met a lot of people at the school who were very interested in what I was doing. It will help me when I get to college because I want to be involved in doing research."

Gates said a good showing at the science and engineering fair is a valuable asset for college-bound students. In fact, last year's overall winner, Chris Duncan, was asked to head a nutrition research program this year at the University of Florida based on the skills he exhibited in putting together his award-winning project.

Central High senior Kay Furman, who was one of four Hernando County students chosen to attend last year's state and international competition, says that a well-thought-out project can be the perfect calling card for a career in science or engineering.

"'It helps to open some doors," said the 18-year-old, who is set to begin classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology next fall. "You can get a lot of recognition from it and that can go a long way to helping you both in college and in whatever career you eventually go into."

Kay's current project is something of a continuation of one from last year. Inspired by a science journal article touting the natural insect-repelling capabilities of catnip oil, she began working on what she hopes may one day offer a safe, natural alternative to today's chemical-based insect repellents.

Work on the project took place this past summer at he University of Florida, where she spent eight hours per day on experiments. The results were promising, she said, but would most likely require many more years of research.

"It was a lot of work but I enjoyed doing it," she said. "It was the first time I had ever spent working with really sophisticated equipment and I loved it. That's why I've always loved science, because you're constantly challenging yourself."

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