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January 23, 2001|Staff Writer

IMPERIAL — Sarah Elmore didn't know her school science project would lead her to discover a potential killer right in her own home.

The Sacred Heart Catholic School seventh-grader ran swabs around different parts of her house and the homes of relatives only to find aspergillus flavus, an organism that can cause cancer in humans, growing in her petri dish a few days later.

Sarah's project, "Fungus Among Us: What's growing in your indoor environment," was one of 140 projects in Saturday's Imperial County Science Fair.

The Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial County Office of Education sponsored the event at the Imperial Valley Expo.

The annual event features awards for 13 different categories and two age divisions, said Ann Garcia, academic events manager for the Office of Education.


"We had a good turnout this year," Garcia said.

Last year's event had 105 entries and only 11 volunteer judges, Garcia said.

Randy Carson was one of the 24 people from a variety of fields in the county volunteering to judge entries this year.

As a math teacher at El Centro's Wilson Junior High School, Carson has served as judge off and on for 15 years.

"This (the science fair) is one of the most important things science students can do," Carson said.

If done right, Carson said, students will see real-world applications for their classwork and gain valuable interaction with members of the science community.

"You see both levels. There are those where the kids put in minimum effort and didn't get much help. And then there are those that have initiative," Carson said.

When students put the project together and watch it work, the lesson is greater than if they had just read about it, Carson said.

"You're not going to get that from a textbook," Carson said.

Carson and other judges looked at each entrant's creative ability, scientific thought or engineering goals, thoroughness, skill and clarity as demonstrated in his or her project.

Chantal Villalva, 14, confessed to feeling a little nervous when being interviewed by judges.

"My mind went blank," said Chantal, a freshman at Central Union High School.

Her project, which would go on to earn her a second-place finish in the behavioral category for the senior division, asked how long it takes for people to remember the scent of particular fruits.

Just like their experiments, students like Chantal put effort into constructing attractive and informative displays for the competition.

Chantal used computer-generated graphics and bright colors to liven up her exhibit.

The hardest part of the whole experiment, Chantal said, was constructing a graph indicating the project's results.

Other experiments looked at topics ranging from hydroponics to fire retardants, fish to hamsters, as students sought creative subjects with which to work.

Sarah was inspired to investigate fungus growth as a result of Yuma High School's recent closure due to harmful mold growth within its buildings.

Her hard work paid off in the form of a first-place win in the microbiology category in the junior division.

The junior division sweepstakes winner was Maria Gonzalez, a seventh-grader at St. Mary's Catholic School in El Centro. Her behavioral experiment was called "When anger comes in, what reaction comes out?"

The senior division sweepstakes winner was Halley Brown, a freshman at Central Union High School. Her engineering project was called "Does the shape of a rocket's fin affect its altitude?"

Winners will be invited to compete in the Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fair in March.

A complete list of winners will appear on Tuesday's Youth In the News page in this newspaper.

Staff Writer Kelly Rausch can be reached at 337-3442.

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