Have you ever wondered which soft drink shoots the highest when you add Mentos mints?

How about Mycelium's effect on the honey bee population?

Both of these questions and many more were explored by hundreds of fourth- through 12th-grade students at the 31st annual Kern County Science Fair held Tuesday at Rabobank Convention Center.

"It's interesting to see when students understand the importance of science in everyday life," said Rita Waugh, a production engineer at Aera Energy who was one of some 250 local professionals who volunteered to judge the competition.

Science fairs, she said, help introduce students to the scientific process. Many careers in Kern County are science-based, so science for local students should be "fundamental."

The students — with not one pocket protector in sight — competed for a chance to move on to the 68th annual California Science Fair to be held at the California Science Center in Los Angeles on April 29-30.

Students were interviewed by judges to demonstrate their understanding of their display, log book and hypothesis. Entries are judged on scientific thought and engineering goals, creativity, organization, completeness, clarity, effort and motivation. First- or second-place finishers may be eligible to compete at the state level.

Matt Kedzierski, president of the Kern County Science Foundation and an organizer of the event, said judges want students to be able to speak with authority about their projects.

We ask questions like, 'What did you do? How did you do it? What did you find out?'" Kedzierski said. "We want to know if they understand the science behind it."

The series of science fairs, at the school, the district, the county and the state level, take work and dedication, he said. Not only from students, but from teachers.

"It can't be done without a passionate teacher to lead these efforts in each of the schools," he said. "Look at the faces of these kids. They feel good because they know they have accomplished something. It's that teacher who makes it possible."

Row upon row of cardboard project displays filled the floor at Rabobank as judges carrying clipboards visited their assigned displays. Students stood attentively, shaking hands with judges, explaining their hypotheses and maintaining their poise as they answered the judges' question.

"I didn't get nervous," said Sandrini Elementary fifth-grader Priscilla Luna.

"I was nervous for you," said Priscilla's mom, Ashley Luna, as the two took a few minutes to relax before lunch Tuesday.

The 11-year-old researched a winter sports question: What effect does salt and sulfate of ammonia have on ice for snowboarders?

In the high school section, 14-year-old twins Harshini and Harshita Ravi said they are both interested in a career in STEM, an education term for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. So the study of those disciplines is not only expected, but desired.

Their project, "The Stem of the STEM Gap: Exploring Gender Gaps in STEM," included a survey of 200 young students at a local elementary school as a way to examine whether girls differed from boys in the way they view their own capacity for intellectual growth.

The Stockdale High students also used a statewide test to determine that, in STEM-based education, girls tend to perform better with female teachers and male students with male teachers — which could be a disadvantage for girls as they found — both anecdotally and statistically — that STEM teaching positions in the upper grades are dominated by men.

Encouraging and incentivizing more women to enter STEM fields may be one potential solution, the sisters said. But societal expectations reflected in peers, mass media and even parents is ripe for change.

"We have to make sure," Harshini said, "as a society we do not discourage girls' interest in science."

If Tuesday's science fair was any indication, girls are at least as likely as boys to enter STEM-based competitions.

And the answer to which soft drink shot the highest when Mentos are dropped in the bottle?

Coke, according to Freedom Middle School seventh-graders Brady Phillips and Riley Miller, who tested several brands of sodas for their volcanic characteristics.

"It's an effect of nucleation," Riley said.

"A chemical reaction," Brady added.

And that's science.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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