A pair of Atholton High School students captured the top prize at the prestigious International Science and Engineering Fair in Canada last week, winning $5,000 each, a trip to Europe and a chance to compete in a student science contest there.
The science project by junior Mani S. Mahjouri and senior Jonathan William Edwards beat out those of 1,036 other high school students from the United States and more than 30 other countries.
"We couldn't believe we won," said Mani, 17, of Columbia's Hickory Ridge village. "There was some great work there, including a lot of stuff I would never have thought to do."
The pair's first-place showing at Science Service Inc.'s international competition was the best performance by Howard County science students in at least the last 15 years, said Sharon Kramer, the Atholton science research teacher who sponsored the youths.
They had earned the trip to Canada by winning the Baltimore Science Fair in March. Oddly, Jonathan and Mani did not win one of the top prizes in Howard County's science fair last March, earning only a blue ribbon of special recognition.
"It was just bad judging," Mani explained with a laugh. "I think it was emergency judges. . . . But I don't want to say anything really bad about the local judging. I'm sure they did the best they could."
The project, "Monte Carlo Simulation of Saturn's Hydrogen Torus," a computer simulation to explain the irregular distribution of hydrogen atoms around the planet Saturn.
The asymmetrical distribution was discovered by the Voyager spacecraft, and the students' project will provide scientists with a working hypothesis to be tested when the Cassini spacecraft visits Saturn in a few years, said Robert B. Decker, a staff physicist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who was a mentor for the youths.
"They put in a lot of long evenings sitting in my office in front of a computer working. For high school students, that is very rare," Mr. Decker said.
"I have only worked with graduate students before, and these high school students showed just as much enthusiasm. They will make excellent college students," he said.
The youths have been working on their project since October, often putting in 15 to 20 hours a week on their own.
Jonathan, 17, of Clarksville will attend the University of Maryland at College Park next year on a full scholarship. Mani will return to Atholton for his senior year.
Both students already have science-related internships lined up for the summer at major corporations.
The pair's victory at the international science fair has earned them a free trip to Newcastle, England, to compete in the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in September.