LARGO — Marissa Streng didn't like getting soaked drying her dog, Mojo, after his bath. She turned to science and created a better way to dry her pug.
Marissa's Puff 'N Fluff, a dog-drying device the third-grader invented, won the grand prize Feb. 11 in the elementary school division of the University of South Florida's 2011 Young Innovator competition.
Marissa had learned on Feb. 1 that she was one of 15 finalists in the category.
"USF called and told my mom I was a finalist during my piano lesson," said Marissa, 9. "I was excited, very excited."
She wasn't alone. Science specialist Joan Falk, Marissa's teacher at St. Paul's School in Largo, got the second phone call when Marissa's Puff 'N Fluff was named a finalist. The national contest drew 472 inventions.
Three other St. Paul's School students also made the finalist cut on Feb. 1. They are third-graders Harrison Thomas, Emily Rich and Truman Davis.
The national competition for kids was an idea from Anna Hopen, a Tampa youngster, and was brought to life by her father, Anton Hopen, a 1991 USF graduate and nationally recognized patent attorney.
Finalists presented their inventions on Feb. 11 before a panel of Youth Innovator competition judges, including Kevin Harrington, CEO of TVGoods.com and infomercial industry pioneer.
This was the first time St. Paul's students entered the competition, but not the last. St. Paul's focuses on science as an integral part of a well-rounded education. It has a state-of-the-art science lab for eighth-graders and a hands-on environmental science program that begins in elementary school.
"We've had our own Invention Convention for eight years, but this was the first we'd heard about the USF program," said Falk. "At St. Paul's, our students create a prototype and display. We give awards and a St. Paul's patent certificate, which is honored while the student attends this school."
Marissa created the Puff 'N Fluff over the course of a month, mostly working at home with the support of her parents, Thomas and Sharon Streng.
"I showed her how to sew last year," said Sharon. "She'd first come up with the idea for a doggy umbrella, but when she researched the patent, there already was one. Her father and I asked what she would change in her life if she could. That's when Marissa came up with the Puff 'N Fluff."
The contraption is made from a material similar to ironing board fabric, which holds air in but is heat resistant, according to Marissa. It has drawstrings to secure the material, which wraps around the dog's middle and connects to tubing that looks like a small diameter dryer hose. It attaches to any blow dryer.
"Marissa walked out and stood before a panel of formidable judges with a raincoat over her clothes, then she introduced her invention, took off the raincoat and said, 'I won't need this anymore,' and gave her talk," said her mother. "The experience of inventing and taking part in the USF program was so important. Win or lose, it was an amazing opportunity we wouldn't have had if it wasn't for Marissa's school."
Marissa's invention could become a household item for pet owners. She and her family hope to put the Puff 'N Fluff on the market in a year or so. They are talking with manufacturers about producing it.
The young inventor has other ideas for animal inventions, too.
"I want to be an inventor when I grow up," said Marissa, who won a trophy and $1,000 for herself and $1,000 for her school. "I was nervous when I got on stage in front of the judges, but I was also really excited, not just for me, but for whoever would win."