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LEARNING : Young Ideas : The county science fair is little more than a month away, but for fair-bound students the application deadline arrives Monday.


It's almost time for Ventura County's annual science fair, a gathering that last year drew about 500 kids who pondered everything from what best cleans up an oil spill to which type of chocolate melts the fastest.

Science teacher Elaine Daugherty, this year's committee chairwoman for the fair, has seen it all, but along the way she's also observed some troubling changes.

"Kids used to get a lot more help from parents," said Daugherty, who teaches at Fremont Intermediate School in Oxnard. "Things have changed quite a bit. It's a reflection of society."

All that doesn't cloud her enthusiasm for the fair, scheduled to run April 20-22 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. (For fair-bound students, the application deadline is Monday.)

"It's so good for them," she said. It teaches youngsters to come up with a question on something and follow it through to a conclusion. In between, they do research, devise a test, write a paper and finally reach a conclusion. Not every child can do it all alone, though.

"You talk about your average kid, and he's going to need help," Daugherty said.

But she has seen some incredible success stories. One student, the son of a Oxnard migrant worker who spoke no English, took an award at the county level and went on to the fair's state level in Los Angeles.

For his project, he took some seeds and exposed them to varying amounts of radiation with the help of St. John's Regional Medical Center, Daugherty said.

About 40 special awards are given at the science fair, and last year Susan Zimmerman, then a senior at Westlake High School, snagged a $4,000 award that led to her admission into a special program at UCLA this year.

Most youngsters go to the county science fair after winning local competitions within their school district. Or, in some cases, their teacher has tapped them for the honor because their project is outstanding.

The county fair draws students in grades six through 12. Sixth-graders, however, may only display their projects, while the competition is open to seventh-graders on up. Those who place first, second or third, compete at the state level.

For the first time this year the fair will allow group projects. These will not be judged and are limited to one project from each school, Daugherty said.

And where do the students get the ideas for the projects? "Very few come up with them out of thin air," Daugherty said. For her students, she has a box of books with project ideas. Sometimes they will take an established experiment and put a new twist on it.

Students headed for the county fair generally are well past the idea stage at this point. But spring is typically the time for science projects whether the fair is the goal or not, and at some elementary schools the younger children might be just getting started.

If they are stumped for an idea or need help putting it together, one place to start is the Imaginarium store at The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks.

The store has a brochure with tips on how to prepare a science project. It shows how to set up a display, dividing space for the hypothesis, methods, research, results and conclusions. A schedule on the back tells what to do week by week.

For those struggling to come up with a project idea, Imaginarium has a few books that might help: "Complete Handbook of Science Fair Projects," "200 Gooey, Slippery, Slimy, Weird and Fun Experiments" and "The Kids Nature Book."

In conjunction with the science fair season, the store has offered a series of Saturday hands-on sessions dealing with some area of science. The last one, called "Spy-Tech, Be a Super Sleuth," is scheduled for Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m.

During the science fair season, students drop in to pick up supplies for their projects, clerk Dan Miroballi said.

"One girl had saved all of the teeth she had lost," Miroballi said. She was soaking them in different liquids to see which causes the fastest decay.

Colin Fogel, a sixth-grader from Westlake, was browsing in the store recently, explaining how he put together a project involving steel wool and water to find out how much oxygen there is in the air.

Was it his idea? No, it came from a book, he said.

Another store that might help with ideas is Merlin's Mystical Emporium in Camarillo, a one-of-a-kind place that specializes in science and magic supplies.

The store, owned by pharmacist-magician Paul Dwork, sells the display boards young scientists need to show judges their project, as well as labels, petri dishes, bug bottles, test tubes, chemicals and other science paraphernalia.

Merlin's is a gold mine of ideas for the youngster who can't come up with one. The store carries everything from robot kits and microscopes to complete kits with 35 science experiments.


The Ventura County Science Fair, organized by the county superintendent of schools office, will be held April 20-22 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds in Ventura. Applications, already sent to schools for students selected to participate, are due Monday.

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