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Best and Brightest: Popular Science Science Fair Winners

What does it take to win the Popular Science Science Fair? Delta’s research and development guru tells all.

The whiz kids who entered Popular Science’s inaugural contest had one tough mission: Dream up an experiment to save the planet. We asked Delta’s own Bob Rodenbeck, who co-judged the contest, why the four grand-prize winners rose to the top.

Elementary School Winner: Henry Stanley, 8, Corpus Christi, Texas

Project: “Does biodegradable plastic really break down faster?”

Stanley built his own landfill and introduced two types of Easter grass. They weighed the same but one contained EcoPure, a nontoxic ingredient designed to speed up biodegrading. After 119 days, the grass with EcoPure was lighter.

Why It Won: “Sustainable but also scalable,” was how Rodenbeck described this stunningly simple entry. “You could imagine him trying to get legislation passed requiring the use of EcoPure in all plastics.”

Middle School Winner: Anushka Jogalekar, 13, San Jose, Calif.

Project: “Can compost clean up soil?”

By mixing compost into soil that contained weedkiller, Jogalekar eliminated contaminants within days. She then planted two groups of lettuce seeds and found that they grew faster and looked healthier in the composted soil.

Why It Won: This technique could be borrowed for environmental cleanup projects. Rodenbeck also gave Jogalekar credit for an experiment that was “complicated with lots of moving parts.”

High School Winner: Emily MacDonald, 16, Brockton, Mass.

Project:  “What’s better, tap or bottled water?”

MacDonald ran tests to see if the H2O from the tap was as good as brands like Dasani. The answer? Yes! Turns out that many bottled waters contain chlorine levels higher than those set by the EPA, but the local stuff doesn't.

Why It Won: Rodenbeck liked that she offered hard facts while raising awareness. “She described bottled water’s environmental costs, from production to transportation. It’s wonderful to think that if people got educated maybe they’d only buy it when they needed it.”

College Winner: Othon Nunez, 23, Chicago

Project: “Can droughts contribute to the greenhouse effect?”

Nunez is using high-tech equipment to put red oak trees through a simulated drought. He wants to see if their leaves will emit isoprene compounds, which can intensify the greenhouse effect.

Why It Won: “He’s trying to discover a new way to measure climate change, which is huge,” Rodenbeck says. If his hypothesis is correct, scientists could gain a tool for tracking global warming. Not bad for a guy who still lives in a dorm.