Hanging out with a collection of the world’s most endangered reptiles isn’t a teenager’s typical after-school hobby.

Still, River Grace, 14, of West Melbourne, Fla., developed a fascination for the rare and endangered Malagasy radiated tortoises that have seen their numbers decimated by poaching and illegal trading. As a volunteer at his local zoo and a tortoise breeding facility, he got closer to the long-lived creatures and observed that, whenever it rained, a captive group of the tortoises would rise up and shuffle around rhythmically in what appeared to be an intentional “rain dance.”

River Grace, 14, of West Melbourne, Fla., won the $25,000 grand prize in this year's Broadcom MASTERS science fair competition.
River Grace, 14, of West Melbourne, Fla., won the $25,000 grand prize in this year’s Broadcom MASTERS science fair competition.

This mysterious behavior sparked an idea for the science experiment that landed him in the winner’s circle among the 2013 class of Broadcom MASTERS finalists.

At an awards ceremony at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C., River was named the Grand Prize winner of the 2013 Broadcom MASTERS science fair competition, earning him the $25,000 Samueli Foundation Prize, a gift of  Broadcom co-founder, Chairman and CTO Henry Samueli and his wife Susan.

He conducted observational experiments with a control group to determine under what condition the tortoises did their “rain dance” and tested his hypothesis that this strange behavior allows the tortoises to avoid drowning in flash-floods in their arid native habitat, he said.

River hypothesized that this “rain dance” behavior allows tortoises to avoid drowning in flash floods in their arid native habitat in Madagascar. Although his hypothesis showed that the behavior didn’t have a strong connection to flooding, he has bigger plans to repeat the experiment on several closely related tortoise species.

It’s these sorts of projects – and the recognition of the critical thinking skills that go into them – that sparks students’ passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) topics and keeps them engaged in these subjects through high school and beyond. River also earned the award for his excellence in STEM activities throughout the competition week.

Eitan Acks
Eitan Acks, 14, of San Diego, won the $10,000 Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation.

Also honored tonight was Eitan Acks, 14, of San Diego, for his project “Tongue Untwister,” which aims to help sufferers of dyspraxia, a speech disability. Acks put his engineering skills to use building a better device to strengthen the parts of the body used in speech, and to mend the connection between those muscles and the brain.

Read about all of the winners here.

Other winners include:

Rising Stars Award:

  • Krystal Horton of Menifee, Calif., for her project on beetle infestation.
  • Sean Weber of Sequim, Wash., for his project on the impact of waves on mussels.

STEM Awards:

  • Science: First place goes to Keoni Gandall of Huntington Beach, Calif., for his project on engineering pink salt. Second place goes to Julienne Sauer of San Ramon, Calif., for her project on superconductors and frictionless motion.
  • Technology: First place goes to Austin McCoy of Rochester, Minn., for his project on disease detection lab equipment for developing countries. Second place goes to Rebecca Bloomfield of Colorado Springs, Colo., for her project on the effects of slope and remediation on post-fire sedimentation.
  • Engineering: First place goes to Mihir Garimella of Pittsburgh, Pa., for his project on digitally recreating smells. Second place goes to Sidhika Balachandar, of Gainesville, Fla., for her project on soundproofing.
  • Mathematics: First place goes to Johann Kailey-Steiner of Denver, for his project on rocket design. Second place goes to Joshua Wentzel of Portland, Ore., for his project on homemade air cannons.

View Photos from MASTERS Week in Washington, D.C.

The Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology, and Engineering for Rising Stars) program helps middle school students translate a personal interest into a passion for science, engineering and innovation, and encourages them to continue with science and math through high school.