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Student Scientists Prove to Be Tough Test for the Judges

Education: About 1,150 compete in the annual Ventura County Science Fair--with projects ranging from candle burning time to the timing of stock market deals.


VENTURA — Middle school student Stephen Shaw dropped terms like "photobacterium phosphoreum" and "photovoltaic diode" as if they were any other words you might hear in the school lunchroom.


It's simple, really. Shaw, a student at Colina Middle School in Thousand Oaks, was merely trying to calculate the solar energy he could get from a sea-dwelling bacterium's bioluminescence, the natural light the tiny creature exudes.

Ah, yes, simple.

At the Ventura County Science Fair on Wednesday, judges roamed rows of cardboard presentations at the county fairgrounds as about 1,150 students proved their scientific mettle, with projects ranging from the everyday practical to the more esoteric.

On one table, for instance, a project attempting to discover whether expensive candles burn more slowly than the cheap kind shared space with one "establishing the regression rate of polyethylene fuel in a nitrous oxide-powered hybrid rocket motor."

The level of the students' scientific inquiry impressed most of the judges--a roster of scientists, doctors and others from the Ventura County area.

"The projects are getting a lot more sophisticated," said Ted Kretschmer, who has been judging at the yearly fair for 30 years. "There's just so much more technology out there now."

And, based on their projects, if some of these students grow up to be scientists, the world might expect cleaner water, healthier diets, and a host of consumer decisions made for it: from the pearliest whitening toothpaste to the laundry detergent hardest on stains.

Judges took their charge very seriously Wednesday.

"Is it original? Is the design clearly laid out? Did they do all the research?" asked one judge, Carl Bellin, a Cal State Northridge professor. "Do they seem excited about their projects?"

Michelle Charloff, a student at Calabasas High School, certainly did. She waved a reporter over to her project and guided him through a pollution survey of her hometown: from her bedroom--"It should have clean air . . . hopefully"--to her school's grounds. Index cards smeared with petroleum jelly, ranged from the nearly spotless at home to a yellowing mush of dirty black specks.

Westlake High's Patrick Griffin probably devised the competition's most potentially lucrative project--a computer program that analyzes the most opportune time to buy and sell stocks. Griffin, who was a prize winner at last year's competition for a project on waste-water treatment, saw the choice as a natural. "I was interested in stocks and making money," he said. "And programming is fun too."

Judges will choose winners in 16 categories among three age groups, as well as hand out special awards sponsored by county organizations. First-, second- and third-place winners will go to the California State Fair.

Projects are open for public viewing today from 2 to 6 p.m. Winners will be announced at 6:30.

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