George L. Hess Educational Complex fifth-grader Eric Weeks really likes the look of the element bismuth - in its crystalline form, it has a cool rainbow coloring, he said. So when it came time to conduct an experiment for this year's science fair, he decided to attempt refining raw bismuth from Pepto-Bismol.

Eric's experiment was a success, leading to his being one of 58 students honored for their submissions to this year's science fair series in a showcase in the school's lobby on June 14.

Isolating the element made for an enjoyable - if a bit hazardous - experiment, Eric said.

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"It was really fun," Eric said. "I almost burnt myself with the acid, though."

While science fairs are a popular academic tradition, none existed at Hess until fifth-grade teacher and science coordinator Melissa Olkowski established the fair two years ago. About 400 students opted to participate in the elective program this year.

Because Hess has an enrollment of about 1,500 students, the school split its fair up over several weeks, with each of the school's seven "houses" displaying their submissions in the school's lobby for a few days starting in May. One student in each homeroom was declared a winner and given a berth at the June 14 showcase.

While not all students take part in the fair, those who do are glad to participate, Olkowski said.

"They love it," she said. "I'm a teacher full-time, so it's difficult to see them all, but when I came down, I had a couple students pull me to the side and show me their experiment, and they were really excited, really appreciative."

Eric has participated in each of three science fairs at Hess so far. Last year, he tested the effects of various chemicals and elements on the growth of plants.

To conduct this year's experiment, he dissolved crushed Pepto-Bismol in a diluted acid solution to isolate the bismuth from the salicylate to which it is bonded.

Eric, whose mother is a biochemist and whose father is a doctor, has been interested in the field since the age of 4, saying he finds the field fascinating.

"Every change the world has (undergone) is because of science," Eric said. "Science is magic."

Eric's was just one of many impressive student experiments on display in the lobby. Others included a demonstration of kinetic energy via a model gauss rifle, an assessment on the difference in reaction time between the sexes and a study of the properties of quicksand.

Many parents of honored students visited the school to see the work of their kids and others. Sakeenah Davis' 9-year-old son, Deondre, was honored for his project, for which he tested the relative efficacy of lemons and oranges as simple batteries with a voltmeter.

Davis praised the staff at Hess for facilitating and encouraging her son's interest in science, saying the knowledge he has acquired through his study will prove valuable in his and the other students' futures.

"That's where the future is going, so for them to do this early, it increases their knowledge in those areas," Davis said. "I thought it was good that they offer this to the kids."

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