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King George High School freshman Taylor Courtney visits with a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
Taylor Courtney's science-fair work earned him and his family a visit to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
BY CATHY DYSON
When Taylor Courtney told other students they should enter the science fair--voluntarily--it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out their response.
"They thought, 'No way,' not if they don't have to," he said. "They said it seemed a little boring."
But Taylor, a ninth-grader at King George High School, wants to spread the message that moments spent monitoring marigolds in Mars soil--his particular project--are worth their weight in Bunsen burners.
Participation in the school science fair is mandatory in middle school, but not in later years.
That's probably why Taylor was the only high school student from King George to enter the Piedmont Regional Science Fair in Charlottesville in March.
Two high-school students from Orange County and two from Stafford County also participated. None from Spotsylvania County's five high schools competed. Fredericksburg is not in the Piedmont region.
Taylor's entry won first place in regionals, which earned him a ticket to the Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair in Norfolk last month.
There, he won third place in earth and planetary science and was the only student from the Fredericksburg region to win an award.
Taylor's science-fair project also led to an invitation to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. During his visit, Taylor discussed his project with six scientists doing similar experiments.
"They were impressed that he thought of a project like this," said his mother, Lisa. "They said it was above his young years."
Taylor, 14, also pointed out the many scholarships available through science fairs and how good a state award looks on a college application.
And then there are the prizes.
"I won four awards at the regionals, one was a set of astronomical binoculars!" Taylor wrote in an email, his enthusiasm coming through his keyboard.
Taylor, whose mother sells Mary Kay cosmetics, and father, Curtis, works for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., did a project to determine how well flowers and vegetables might grow on the red planet.
He bought "Mars soil," dirt from a Hawaiian volcano that's similar to that on Mars. He added peat moss and soil from his backyard, potted the mixture in four containers and planted two seeds of marigolds, tomatoes, radishes and beans in each pot.
He watered them daily and recorded the height and weight of the beans for 27 days, the others, for 21.
His conclusion: Marigolds are mad for Mars. They like its soil's sandy composure and lack of loam, an organic material that retains water.
But alas, the lack of loam also means fewer nutrients, causing smaller leaves and longer growing time than on the planet Earth.
Taylor's mother loved science as a kid, although she wasn't as successful with her projects. She jokes that he got his "genes and genius" from her father, the late Richard Gough. He was a test pilot with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force, as well as one of the backup astronauts for the Apollo 11 mission.
Taylor plans to become an engineer and keep doing science projects as long as his schedule allows.
After all, he can't turn down the chance to meet such interesting people. His favorite project at the state fair was from Nicolena Stiles, a Roanoke student and one of two grand-prize winners.
"The student trained bees--she actually trained bees--to detect an illegal substance on someone, similar to canine dogs," he said. "Amazing!"
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425