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Lemons to nuts, science fair rocks

Scotti Browning hypothesized that of all the nuts, the pecan holds the most stored energy.

"It has the highest amount of calories, and it's the largest nut," she said.

That was the basis for her project at the Hernando County Regional Science and Engineering Fair, which took place Feb. 16 at the SNPJ Hall.

Scotti tested her hypothesis by burning different nuts below a glass of water to see which nut raised the water's temperature most.

"My hypothesis was wrong," said Scotti, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Parrott Middle School. "I'm really surprised, but the cashew has the most stored energy."

Sixty-five giant cardboard foldouts divided into six categories lined the building for the fair, setting up a maze of innovation. Half of the county's middle and high schools, and two private schools, participated.

"We still tripled the amount of high school participation and doubled the middle school amount from last year," said Colleen Doulk, a sixth-grade life sciences teacher at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, who co-directed the fair. "I think we have more this year because there has been an awakening of how important science is. Our future is in science."

Five judges scored each project. Parents, local business people, teachers and retired community members comprised the judging pool. First, second and third place in each category, plus middle and high school best in show, were awarded at a ceremony at Central High School the night after the fair.

"The main thing I look for is that the project is well thought out," said Mary Alice Wagner, a judge who is a youth education specialist for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "They need to be able to explain how they used the scientific method to reach their conclusion, and have the data to support the project."

Up to 12 of the best middle and high school projects go on to the State Engineering and Science Fair in April in Orlando, and the four best high school projects can go to Indianapolis for the International Fair, where the Intel Corp. is giving away $8-million in scholarships.

"I went to states last year and won third place in my category," Scotti said. "That got me even more interested in the science fair for this year. It was a great experience to see all the winners from the other counties. The judges asked a lot more difficult questions there, so it really made everybody think about their projects."

Local middle schools require students to complete a research project that is up to the standard of a science fair project each year. Shone Jung, who teaches sixth-grade science at Parrott Middle and was her school's science fair coordinator, said science fair projects are an invaluable part of a student's education.

"It's an integration of all the curriculum," she said. "Students use reading, writing, science, math and creativity to complete these projects. It also incorporates all the Sunshine State Standards. . . . It teaches students the process scientists go through to reach a conclusion."

Steve Barton, a construction technology teacher at Springstead High who was a judge at the fair, said he thinks the projects are so important that he wants students to be able to take a class that features research projects.

"My son participated in the science fair, and I see how big of an effect it had on his life," Barton said. "He won scholarships because of it, and the process really helped his future. I'm trying to get the School Board to authorize students to receive credit for research projects so they can see what these projects can help them accomplish. We only have 15 total high school projects here. We should have 15 from each school."

In an effort to motivate students to participate and reward students who excel in the field, Barton created his own special engineering incentive.

"I'm giving away a $100 bond and a plaque to the best engineering project," he said. "I'm looking for projects where the students really build something of their own and understand how it works. . . . This is a necessary field, and we want to see people in it. I'm just trying to encourage them."

Although the total turnout doubled from last year, there was still empty space in the building.

"We still have lots of room for growth," said Chad Willman, Central High zoology and marine biology teacher and the fair coordinator. "But I'm very encouraged by the quality of the projects this year. There are no fluff projects. And a lot of them are from first-year participants, which means there are new people who will be with us in the years to come."

One of the first-timers was 13-year-old Parrott Middle seventh-grader James Dewey. His project turned sour lemons into little yellow batteries.

"I used terminals to give these four lemons enough power to power a calculator," James said. "The idea just came to me because I'm always trying to figure out how things work. I take all my electronics apart at home. I'm really into science and engineering."

Unfortunately, James found that lemons and terminals likely will not be the world's next energy source.

"Well, I found it would take almost 5,000 lemons to power a 60-watt bulb."

Mathew Wasserman can be reached at


Here are the winners from the Hernando County Regional Science and Engineering Fair:

Best in Show for high school: Stephen Hallet.

Best in Show for middle school: Johnny Campbell.

High school first-place winners included:

Behavioral Sciences: Stephen Hallet, ninth-grader at Springstead High.

Biological Sciences: Ashley Fenker, 11th-grader at Central High.

Medical and Health Sciences: Julia Palm, 11th-grader at Central High.

Engineering Sciences: Dan Skulnik, 11th-grader at Central High.

Environmental Sciences: Nicole Bell, 12th-grader at Central High.

Middle school first-place winners included:

Biological Sciences: Robyn Crawford, -grader at Parrott Middle.

Medical and Health Sciences: Kely Doty, sixth-grader at J.D. Floyd Elementary.

Engineering Sciences: Johnny Campbell, seventh-grader at Parrott Middle.

Environmental Sciences: Mathew Mitchell, sixth-grader at J.D. Floyd Elementary.

Computer and Math Sciences: Tim Marro, seventh-grader at Challenger K-8.

Chemistry and Biochemistry: Samantha Petrovich, sixth-grader at J.D. Floyd Elementary.

Nicholas Napolitano, 13, a seventh-grader at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, checks out "Building a Lemon Battery" the day before the Regional Science and Engineering Fair opened. The entry was by James Dewey, a seventh-grader at Parrott Middle School.

Justin Cotto, 12, a seventh-grader at Parrott Middle School, watches as Chasity Willman measures his entry. Cotto's experiment found that plants exposed to higher temperatures will absorb more moisture.