NEW TAMPA — Middle-schoolers often struggle with ideas for their annual science fair projects.
But a healthy dose of curiosity works well for Bartels eighth-grader Cesar Maeda, whose project about his work with Spanish moss earned him a spot as a semifinalist in a national competition.
Cesar's goal was to find a natural way to get rid of Spanish moss, which can weigh down tree branches and break them. So he focused his project around ways to fight moss infestation.
"Sometimes, it's just looking out the window," Cesar said. "Thinking about environmental problems, I saw a nearly dead tree and felt sorry for the trees."
Cesar's experimentation led him to discover that a mixture of baking soda and water can destroy the moss.
"The baking soda was the best because of the pH level in the baking soda, which killed the Spanish moss and didn't hurt the tree at the same time," he said. "It's a very strong substance, but it's a natural substance."
That project earned Cesar a first-place state finish in the environmental science division in 2007 for grades six through eight.
The national competition was conducted online, with Cesar's project chosen as runner-up from more than 1,700 entries.
"Since it was online, that was based more on what the judges read, not what they saw," said Cesar, 14, who lives in Cross Creek. "So that meant they really understood the idea."
Cesar said he didn't create science fair projects until he came to Bartels from Chicago in the sixth grade. But his discoveries have been turning heads since, always with an eye toward helping the environment.
Two years ago, his project involved solving congestion problems with proper traffic flow through light synchronization. This school year, it was about controlling the mosquito population by discovering tiny crustaceans called triops that kill off the mosquito larvae.
A science teacher's experiment with fire in the fourth grade sparked a flame that has fascinated Cesar ever since. There's also a scientific pedigree in his family: His dad, Cesar Maeda Sr., has a biology degree, and his aunt Ortencia in Mexico is a biologist.
Cesar and his father get some of their inspiration watching the Discovery Channel show MythBusters.
"It's everyday life," Cesar said of his ideas. "Spanish moss takes out oxygen from the trees, which humans need."
His father said his son has always been curious and very detail-oriented.
"He always asks why and what causes things," the elder Maeda said. "He enjoys being outside and learning about nature."
Cesar's current science teacher, Jenny McAllister, said his projects are original.
"His processing and analyses of what's going on in class is at another level," McAllister said. "The other kids in class always ask, 'What does Cesar think?' He has quite a bit of humility. He answers questions in a way that benefits the kids around him."
Cesar's interests extend beyond science. He plays several sports, as well as the piano and clarinet.
He said he has thought about a career in science, and he also enjoys math.
His advice to his fellow students scratching their heads about their next science fair project is simple: Pick something you like.
"All science projects are great," he said. "Even if they don't win, they always have a purpose."