Volunteer Tim Wilson, left, praises the participation of 13 students from… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Brian Vallelunga got two job offers yesterday. He's 14.
His secret? Levitation.
The Dana Middle School eighth-grader, one of more than 1,000 students participating in the 59th annual Los Angeles County Science Fair, impressed the judges so much with his research on ionic propulsion that two of them offered him summer internships.
While Brian leveraged his talent into job prospects -- a growing rarity in today's economic climate -- the science fair has not escaped the sting of the recession.
The fair, an event that relies heavily on corporate sponsorship, is struggling to raise enough money to cover expenses. Companies that once donated thousands of dollars have cut back or forgone donations altogether, said fair President Dean Gilbert. As a result, the fair is $35,000 short of breaking even, even after slashing $40,000 from its original budget.
"The economy is causing everyone to tighten the thumbscrews," Gilbert said.
The cutbacks are easy to spot. Display tables, which in previous years were adorned with blue drapes and tablecloths, were bare this year -- a move that saved $15,000.
The number of electrical plugs was reduced to just six, forcing students to move their projects to a central area if they needed electricity for a demonstration. The change trimmed electrical costs by $10,000.
Students who used to receive free parking passes had to pay $12 to park at the L.A. Convention Center. Judges who once got $25 boxed lunches were instead settling for $20 food cards to use during the two days of judging.
"It's like going from a Cadillac down to a Hyundai," Gilbert said.
Still, the science fair, which ended its three-day run Friday, was a hub of creative activity, exhibiting almost 900 science projects on topics such as plant physiology, math and computer science.
Alex Chen, an eighth-grader at Ridgecrest Intermediate School in Rancho Palos Verdes, built a model solar panel using a unique design. Unlike the conventional planar solar cell panel, Alex's model had solar cells and mirrors arranged in a V-shape, which, he said, would reduce costs by using fewer solar panels.
"If people see that it works, they can make big panels to run houses, generate electricity and make global warming better by using electricity instead of gas," said Alex, 13, dressed in a gray suit and pink tie for judging.
This year's festivities marked the first time in the fair's history that a special education class submitted an entry. Thirteen special education students from Lincoln School in San Gabriel tested the difference in taste, smell and appearance between organically grown bananas, tomatoes and green beans and their conventionally grown counterparts.
"The kids completely enjoyed doing all the experiments," said teacher Danise Marler. "They are unable to read and write, but they nod or shake their head, smile or frown, use certain facial movements. . . . It challenged the kids and the staff to get creative."
Others also put a creative spin on their projects, exploring how smells influence dreams and whether salt affects the crispness of fries.
Eliana Pipes and Laura Hyslop from Culver City Middle School built a lollipop-licking machine with a tin can, hand crank and sponges to measure how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop -- 420.
This year's top winners:
Senior division sweepstakes: Emmelyn Hsieh, 11th grade, Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, "Comparisons of D-glucose, D-fructose levels in consumer products."
Junior division sweepstakes: Chris Sercel, 8th grade, St. Bede The Venerable School, "Boxed lightning: the effect of run time on the electrical resistance of an alternating current (AC) carbon arc."
Senior Smedley award: Robert Hollar, 10th grade, Ribet Academy, "Maximizing solar energy."
Junior Smedley award: Madison East, 6th grade, Tulita Elementary School, "Maglev train experiment."