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Ventura County

Budding Scientists Get Results

Fair: From the practical to the unusual, 1,200 projects from county students are on display.

April 25, 2002|LISA LEFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From experiments gauging the effectiveness of shinguards to taste tests on tortilla chips and cat food, the 1,200 entries on display at the 2002 Ventura County Science Fair offer a bit of the practical and the unusual.

Through tonight, projects exploring the role that music plays in test performance, human heart rates and plant growth stand alongside investigations into which brand of sneakers produces the highest jumps and whether eyelash mascara is a health hazard. And if the findings are less than earth-shattering, they are at least relevant.

"My mother is always saying that you should sing the 'Happy Birthday' song while you are washing hands to make sure you do it long enough, and I wanted to see if she was right," said Tiana Cortes, 11, an Oxnard fifth-grader whose entry examines the relationship between bacteria counts and the time spent hand-washing. According to the budding scientist, her inquiry yielded an important lesson: Mother usually knows best.

The annual rite of passage for scientifically inclined fifth- through 12th-graders produced its usual share of esoteric submissions, with titles such as "The Effects of Pollutants on Brine Shrimp" and "Protozoa in Peril."

But it was the less lofty projects that assured volunteer judges such as Steve Chrans, an engineer at Northrop Grumman in Port Hueneme, that the event is fulfilling its primary purpose.

"What I find most refreshing is that while there are some kids who are obviously very good at it, for others this is a way to bring science to life," Chrans said. "There's one kid who obviously likes riding BMX bikes off ramps. He probably does it every day after school, and he turned that into a science project on aerodynamics."

Students are competing for 25 prizes donated by private sponsors, ranging from plaques and gift certificates to cash awards of up to $500, and a $1,000 scholarship to Cal State Channel Islands. The top three winners in each of the 16 categories also gain the right to present their projects at the California Science Fair next month in Los Angeles.

"It would be cool to get a prize, but we came here for fun," said Daniel Loman, 13, an eighth-grader at Ventura's Cabrillo Middle School. He and teammate Sean Dalton, 13, both first-timers at the fair, tested the performance of several alternative fuels in a gasoline engine attached to a bicycle wheel.

With a mother who is a former science teacher and an older sister who is a former fair winner, Jon Rothstein-Fisch, a Ventura High School senior, said he thought he might as well enter the show this year, the last time he would be eligible.

And waiting had its advantages. Because he is now 18, Rothstein-Fisch had no trouble buying the cigarettes he and his partner, Armond Richards, 17, needed for their research on whether second-hand smoke is more harmful to children than adults.

The pair used cotton balls and two different-sized plastic soda bottles to simulate two sets of lungs, then fit the burning ends of cigarettes into the bottle openings, and squeezed the bottles at varying rates to simulate the respiration patterns of adults and children. As they presented their findings to a team of judges, they said their research was hampered because as nonsmokers they didn't have any other way of obtaining second-hand smoke.

"We for sure didn't want to put cigarettes to our mouths, because we find them repulsive. But we do believe that the smoke coming out of a human mouth would be cleaner than streamline smoke, because of the filter," Rothstein-Fisch said. "At least that's our hypothesis."

While the judges seemed impressed by scientifically sophisticated entries such as 16-year-old Shavonne Thompson's study of antibiotic resistance and eighth-grader Cassidy Hsieh's study of vitamin C in vegetables, students themselves favored the more accessible entries.

An exhibit that generated a lot of buzz examined how facial symmetry relates to perceptions of beauty by analyzing photographs of celebrities such as Britney Spears and Brad Pitt, who have fairly symmetrical faces.

The fair, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, will be open to the public from 2 to 6 p.m. today, with the winners scheduled to be announced soon after.

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