TAMPA — Inquisitive young minds tested pollutants in the Hillsborough River, swabbed malls for germs and pondered the psychology behind the quintessential question "Do these jeans make me look fat?"
More than 1,200 Hillsborough County students showed off their scientific skills this week at the 31st annual regional science fair, said Pam Caffery, the school district's middle school science supervisor.
"These are kids who have really taken scientific thinking to a whole new level," Caffery said.
This year's regional fair was the largest in its 31-year history, she said. It opened Monday at the Tampa Convention Center.
The physics category draws the most projects, Caffery said, but in recent years more students have shown interest in environmental science.
On Tuesday, the sharpest students received awards and cash prizes of $50 to about $500 in more than a dozen categories.
"Best in fair" honors went to Margaret Parrish of Adams Middle School, who studied pH levels in rain, and Jasmine Roberts of Wharton High School, who examined gene therapy to treat Alzheimer's disease.
The best-in-fair elementary winners were third-grader Thomas Keller of Westchase Elementary School, fourth-grader Nathaniel Moura of Dickenson Elementary School and fifth-grader Aryan Patidar of Clark Elementary School.
Twenty-six middle and high school researchers will pack up their trifold posters to compete for scholarships at the state science fair in Orlando next month.