Record number of Native American teens in science fair
The Arizona Republic
May. 10, 2005
Anne Ryman

The Gila River Indian Reservation's warm, salty waters are ideal conditions for raising tilapia fish, which wind up on restaurant menus and at fish markets.

Sophomore Annette Mendivil, 16, hopes to work as a biologist and research fish production.

She has a great start.

Mendivil made the tilapia fish the focus of a nearly yearlong science project.

She is one of five Native American students from Arizona and New Mexico competing this week in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fairat Phoenix Civic Plaza.It's the largest delegation of Native American students from Arizona in the science fair's 56-year history.

The students are among 26 high school students from Arizona and 1,447 from around the world competing. The fair ends Friday.

In addition to Mendivil, Native American competitors from Arizona are Travis Lopez, 17, and Anna Lopez, 15, a brother and sister from Sacaton; and juniors Natalie Benally, 16, and Sammia Largo, 17, of Wingate High School near Gallup, N.M.

Travis, in particular, could make a strong showing at the national level, where projects compete for a $50,000 grand prize. This is his second trip to the fair as a finalist.

His project looks at aquaponics, fish farming combined with growing plants in water, with the goal of providing sustainable food.

Students spent Monday setting up explanations of their science projects on big poster boards. Around them, the air buzzed with excitement as students unfolded their work to get ready for judging Wednesday.

Mendivil, who attends Casa Grande Union High School, started her science project about tilapia fish over the summer, spending at least an hour a day observing and taking care of 200 fish.

She sacrificed basketball. Vacation days and winter break were spent tending, observing and analyzing.

Her hard work was worth it.

Her experiment won one of five grand-prize awards in March at the Arizona American Indian Science and Engineering Fair in Chandler.

Students can often become so involved in their own science project that science fairs enable them to see what other sciences are out there, on Mendivil said.

Her tribe, the Gila River Indian Community, doesn't have a full-time biologist, she said. So her long-term goals are to go to college, major in biology and come back to the reservation.

Short-term, she is planning next year's science project.

It will be a continuation of her current project, this time looking at how feeding the fish extra protein will affect their growth.

She will find out this week how this year's experiment fared with judges.

Phill Huebner, director of American Indian programs for Arizona State University who is helping advise the students, stopped by to check on her progress Monday.

Science fairs are important, he said, because they help students develop lifelong learning skills.

"We've developed a scientist," he said, looking proudly at Mendivil. "What they are learning will benefit their communities."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8072.