Energy studies bring rewards to innovative high schoolers

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

What do rabbit breeding and a city's power distribution have in common?

Understandably, you may answer ''nothing.'' As you might suspect, however, that's not the right answer.

Holly Peck, a recent high school graduate from Alhambra, Calif., knows the connection. And it's hardly a trivial bit of knowledge, considering that Holly used it as the basis for a science project that recently landed her a $40,000 scholarship to Harvard University in a nationwide contest sponsored by the National Energy Foundation (NEF), a nonprofit energy education agency.

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What Holly found is that the Fibonacci series - a set of numbers developed by a Middle Ages mathematician to describe the multiplying of breeding rabbits - can be used to predict the growth of a city's energy needs.

Aided by a computer, which she programmed to chart the growth of an imaginary community, Holly found that the wide range of variables that normally go into projecting energy needs - such as the cost of oil, the impact of white flight from urban areas - tend to cancel each other out. Instead, she says, the growth of a city and its power needs can be charted in Fibonacci numbers.

''It means that you can plan for the future more efficiently,'' says Holly of the results of her project, ''A Computer-Aided Analysis of Power Distribution Using the Fibonacci Series.'' Her analysis was singled out in a regional student competition by a panel of energy experts, who selected her to be a national finalist.

''You'll know, for example, that you'll need 10 power plants in the future, so you can start building those plants now rather than doing a rush job later on ,'' she continues. ''Or, it can keep you from building 10 power plants now, only to find out that you don't need five of them later on.''

Much of the work done by students involved in NEF programs already has attracted widespread attention. Clarke Simmons, an Alexandria, Va., high school graduate who won a $40,000 scholarship to Carnegie-Mellon University in the same contest, caught the US Army's eye with his winning entry: ''A Polarizing Retroreflecting Prism.''

The Army is so interested that it is helping Clarke patent his invention, which uses a prism to increase versatility in the use of lasers. A few years ago , says Alice Doherty, NEF's West Coast director, a student who developed a new drill bit for coal mining was approached by a private firm who paid him to refine his product, helped him get a patent, and then paid him for the finished product.

Founded in 1976 and funded by private industry, NEF develops energy awareness programs - involving scientific, economic, social, and political concerns - for use in public and private secondary schools.

Foundation projects include career-day conferences, seminars on energy-related problems attended by students and energy experts, and the annual science contest. Currently, NEF programs are in schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, New Jersey, and the Washington, D.C., area - with plans to expand next to Denver and Houston.

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