Science isn't just for boys anymore.
Just ask Laura Smith, an eight-grader at MacArthur Middle School, who took one of the second-place prizes in the Anne Arundel County science fair over the weekend.
"My teacher encourages me," said Laura, 14. "She doesn't try to hold us back. She says if you can do it, you should do it."
So this year, Laura decided to pursue a personal interest for the science fair: She made antennas for amateur radios to see which materials provided the best reception.
She even soldered copper piping together to make one antenna.
"It didn't work very well as an antenna," said Laura, who has her own federal amateur radio operator's license. "It was the least expensive one that worked the best."
About half of this year's 250 contestants were female, said Thomas Custer, coordinator of science for the Board of Education, who oversees the annual event at Anne Arundel Community College.
"I think we do a really good job of letting young girls know from kindergarten up that they can be successful in math and science," said Mr. Custer. "We grew up with the myth that girls couldn't do as good a job, but studies show that's just a lot of bunk. You have to help the teachers become comfortable teaching the subject, and then you have to build on the child's early successes. You can't wait until the ninth grade to try to develop their interest in science."
Mr. Custer also is battling another tradition: awarding scholarships to college based on athletic prowess.
"Children are very astute. They know where the rewards go. They see basketball and baseball players' pictures on the front of The Sun," he said. "They know if they do a sport for three months they'll get into college. No one's recruiting their brains. In Maryland, we have biotech people all over the place, but we don't do anything to recruit students into science courses in college."
That hasn't stopped the busy brains of the county's top student science buffs from dreaming up new projects for the competition.
This year's entries included one that analyzed the strength of different shaped structures made from dry spaghetti noodles. Another student made complicated paper airplanes and tested flight distances.
There were lots of environmental projects, too, including an analysis of the best way to clean up oil spills and how increases in ultraviolet light will affect plant growth.
Jamie Miller, a 12-year-old from Arundel Middle School's seventh-grade class, was among the more ambitious science fair competitors: He started his project last summer.
Using a computer, Jamie created a color block with a small black square in the middle. Periodically, the color block would change colors, perhaps to green.
"But someone who was colorblind wouldn't see green, they would see the opposite color," said Jamie, who wears glasses but isn't colorblind. "I tested 32 people. I even tested a former principal, who thought he wasn't that colorblind. But my test showed he was."
The overall prize winner was Gregory Miller of Arundel Senior, while Sarah Castro of Annapolis Area Christian School was judged as having the top biology project.