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Kilmer Middle School students Pallavi Bhave, 14, and Joyce Tian, 13, had a lot to celebrate this week.

The eighth graders were recently named regional winners in the nationwide ExploraVision competition, sponsored by Toshiba and the National Science Teachers Association. For the contest, teams in grades K-12 had to create an innovative technology that could be used 20 years from now.

Joyce and Pallavi were among the 24 teams chosen to be regional finalists out of 5,206 that competed. The contest enjoyed an 8 percent increase in student participation this year compared with last, according to organizers. In the competition, there are six regions and students are divided into competing brackets based on grade level: kindergarten through third grades; fourth through sixth grades; seventh through ninth grades; and 10th through 12th grades.

Their selection makes them eligible to become a national finalist. Eight national winners are expected to be announced later this month.

Pallavi and Joyce were recognized for their research and innovation on a food allergen detector that uses a UV-laser beam to detect 50 common allergens and alert the user of a potential anaphylactic reaction.

“Lots of people in my family are allergic to foods,” said Pallavi, a Vienna resident. She said often times, food items carry warnings such as “may contain soy,” but an eater cannot be sure.

“My mom was saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a device for food items that could see what allergens are in there,’” she said of where she got the idea for the project.

Members of Pallavi’s family are allergic to such foods or food content such as soy, wheat, shellfish and dairy. Pallavi said she is not allergic to those things.

Middle school friend Joyce, who lives in Merrifield, was also interested in detecting food allergens.

“I knew a few kids that literally couldn’t be near peanut butter,” she said. “If you opened a container, they’d have to leave the room.”

The students’ detector, which is theoretical technology at this point, is five inches tall, two inches wide and a half an inch thick.

“It was designed like an iPhone and it’s got a button on the top,” Pallavi said. “When it’s hit, it emits an invisible UV-laser beam, and a green beam [that tells the user how far away they are from the food item they are scanning].”

The girls said detector users would need to be pretty much in the food to get a reading.

For the contest, the two-member team had to submit an 11-page paper, which was reviewed by a judging panel of science teachers and professional scientists.

“[Judges] look at the feasibility,” said Eric Crossley, the National Science Teachers Association’s manager of the ExploraVision competition. “One thing the judges definitely look at is will this be a problem in 20 years? Is this a problem or issue that needs to be attended to? Food allergies are a hot topic, something that’s being talked about a lot right now.”

Crossley said judges also look to make sure the students, rather than adult helpers, did the research and work.

“They were very self motivated and went out and did this on their own,” Kilmer Middle School science teacher Susan Bates said. Bates was the team’s coach, while Pallavi’s father served as a team mentor.

“Pallavi researched it all on her own and came to me and said, I really want to do this,” Bates said. “They needed a coach and a mentor.”

Bates said she directed Pallavi toward teaming up with Joyce, another star science student in the school.

While the national contest is in its 21st year, this year marks the first that Kilmer students have participated, Bates said.

“We haven’t done it before because it’s more technology based. It’s more theoretical,” she said. For the national round of judging, the girls had to submit a one-to-two minute video explaining their project and create a website for it.”

Along with their competition success, both teens received news last week that they had been accepted as members of the 2013 freshman class at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which is the region’s governor’s school for science, technology, engineering and math. To gain entrance into TJ students must undergo an application process similar to college admissions, complete with an exam.

“I’ve always liked science,” Pallavi said. “When I was younger I wanted to be an astronaut and then... I wanted to be a doctor. Now I want to be a genetic engineer.”

Joyce said, “I like science because even though there’s been a lot discovered already, you can build on it. [And] there’s still stuff to discover.”

Should the girls advance to the national phase of competition, they could be awarded U.S. Series EE Saving Bonds valued at maturity of $10,000 each for first-place and $5,000 each for second-place

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com