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The experiments were as varied Friday as the results in the annual Sonoma County Science Fair.

One student tested whether gender impacted a person’s speed in processing optical illusions. It didn’t. Another compared the acidity of dark and light coffee roasts — light roasts were more acidic.

The Sonoma County Office of Education hosted the event at the Rohnert Park Community Center on Friday, recognizing the work of more than 175 future doctors, engineers, mathematicians and scientists. The students represented 21 local public and private middle and high schools. Synopsys Outreach Foundation helped underwrite the event.

Some of the participants spent months on their research-based projects, which they hoped would be selected to move on to the state science fair in Los Angeles in May. They were eager but nervous to meet with judges Friday morning to explain their projects and answer questions. Final results from the competition will be announced next week.

Most of the 32 judges work in the science field or are science or math teachers, said Jessica Progulske, SCOE’s curriculum coordinator for student engagement. It was a rare opportunity for the kids, who don’t always have a chance to showcase their work outside of the classroom, she said.

“The students take the interview process very seriously,” Progulske said.

It was Bill Spence’s first time judging the science fair, the largest one in the event’s roughly 13-year history. The retired Santa Rosa math teacher said the projects were “off the charts.”

“Some of the kids are superstars,” he said. “It’s good there’s a place where they can showcase their work.”

Spence was particularly impressed with the work of Yesenia Aguilar, a talented and lively junior from Piner High School. She looked at what would be the best and most affordable equipment for her school for gel electrophoresis, a method used for separating DNA. She tested the separation of dyes in three different gel boxes, including one she made at home using a plastic food container, paper clips and five 9-volt batteries. She found her homemade gel box was most effective and cost up to $600 less than the other equipment.

“You get a better learning factor with the homemade box,” said Aguilar, 16.

Aguilar hopes to be the first in her family to attend college and become a forensic technician, perhaps for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“(Yesenia) had to try to control as many variables as possible,” Judy Barcelon, science, technology, engineering and math coordinator at Piner High School, which had about 20 students take part in the science fair. “She struggled a lot. From the struggle came great science.”

Kelly Needleman, an eighth-grader at St. Francis Solano Catholic School in Sonoma, spent up to three months on his project, which analyzed how different types of tennis courts impact the bounce height and speed of a traveling ball. He came up with the idea for the project after a recent visit to Wimbledon in England where he noticed that the balls didn’t bounce as high on its famed grass courts.

“I’m used to asphalt and clay (surfaces),” said Needleman, a tennis player since he was 7.

With help from his mother, Edna, also a tennis player, he tested how high balls bounced on three surfaces — clay, asphalt and grass — using a special T-square. He said the balls bounced much higher on a clay surface, which indicates it has the most friction.

“This was an eye-opening experience for him,” Edna Needleman said. “And it’s helped him with his game.”

Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González covers education. You can reach her at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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