Best Science Fair Project 2012 | Joe Hudy's extreme marshmallow cannon | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix

The Secret Service was less than thrilled, but how do you keep POTUS from playing with a big air-powered PVC gun at the White House Science Fair? At the February event, President Obama found 14-year-old Joe Hudy's extreme marshmallow cannon, which fires relatively harmless s'more stuffing up to 176 feet, as fascinating as we do. The Phoenix teen is no one-trick pony; he holds two editors' choice awards from Maker Faire and has launched a small business selling one of his other inventions, a kit to make a 3x3x3 LED Cube Arduino Shield. Your computer makes it light up, and that's all we know. We might stick with the candy gun.

Of all the animals that might look out of place in the cactus-ridden sauna of the Sonoran Desert, penguins arguably rank first. Fragile-looking, flightless waterbirds in the land of rattlesnakes, dust storms, and a heat wave that begins each spring and stretches to fall — it's just plain wrong. The first time we saw the collection of black-footed penguins at World Wildlife Zoo, it was in May — on Mother's Day, to be precise. A small waddle of the birds gathered in the only patch of shade in their rocky pen, which was about eight square feet and shrinking as the sun went higher. It was clear that the birds would soon have to make a choice between swimming in their cold pool, going inside to their air-conditioned apartment, or roasting in the sun like roadkill. Sad.

But let's face it, few zoo animals look entirely comfortable in their tiny, artificial cages. It's best not to dwell on the matter and just enjoy the experience of seeing such exotic animals. In fact, the exhibit is a relatively spacious housing and play area for the birds, which incidentally come from South Africa, not Antarctica. No bars surround the viewing area, allowing for an up-close and personal look at the these amazing, flipper-flapping critters. The World Wildlife Zoo has many awesome animals, but to desert dwellers like us, seeing live penguins is like a frosty treat.

Take the terror out of spotting a black bear alone in the wilderness and view it like we do — from inside the security of our own vehicle.

Thirty miles west of Flagstaff, in Williams, entrepreneur Sean Casey has turned 160 acres into a rugged but manicured drive-through wilderness park featuring rescued bears and other mountain wildlife, à la Jurassic Park. We've gotten a kick out of seeing bears, bison, and wolves up close since Bearizona opened in May 2010. But please don't get out of your car to pet the bison, like one group of Red Hat Society ladies tried to do. These are wild animals. We did hear that the women made it out safely, thanks to the roving employees and cameras all around the park scoping out any dangerous wildlife or human roguery.After the two-mile drive through the wildlife habitats, park your car and head into the walking portion of the zoo, featuring bear cubs born at the zoo, javelina, and foxes, among others. Don't miss the birds of prey show and be sure to sit toward the center of the audience for an extra special thrill. Giant raptors skim their feet just inches above your head.

Although it's been dead since the end of the Cretaceous period, the towering Tyrannosaurus bataar inside the Arizona Museum of Natural History is still terrorizing smaller creatures, albeit of the Homo sapiens variety, with its frightening teeth, menacing presence, and roaring countenance. Toddlers sometimes skitter away from its petrified skeleton, despite the fact it hasn't moved on its own for more than 80 million years. Theropods like this fearsome killing machine are just one of more than a dozen fossilized bones on display in Dinosaur Hall, the museum's main attraction. Other ancient bones include those of the cow-like camarasaurus, the duck-billed iguanodon, and numerous examples of triceratops. Meanwhile, models of pterosaurs and pteranodons hang from the ceiling over in the Rulers of the Prehistoric Skies room. And Dinosaur Mountain, a three-story re-creation of a Triassic peak, is populated by growling animatronic versions of a pentaceratops, stegosaurus, and other scaly relics. It's like Mesa's own version of Jurassic Park, except without the deadly dangers of dinos running amok.

Phoenix might not have a lot of things, like cool ocean breezes or soaring forests, but one thing we do have? Snakes and other reptiles. We're like a herpetological all-you-can-eat buffet.

To commemorate this, someone at ASU (nobody is exactly clear on who) started a massive collection of snakes, lizards, and other cold-blooded denizens of the Arizona desert. Since the 1960s, the collection has grown to contain nearly 45,000 specimens, all lovingly preserved and on display in the A Wing of the Life Science Center on ASU's Tempe campus. Whether you fancy a look at an albino western diamondback or a pickled Gila monster, this is the place to come. Though most specimens are preserved in tanks and glass jars, but some are, theoretically, open for handling by the public. If the hands-on exploration of herpetology isn't for you, there always is the electronic database, which lists most of the specimens in the collection, as well as where they were collected. Thomas Dowling is the man to speak to about seeing all the snakes. He's the interim curator and can be contacted via e-mail at [email protected].

Allow us to nip your first question right in the bud: No, the pair of Komodo dragons currently residing at the Phoenix Zoo are not related to the winged serpent of legend in any way. Nor do they breathe fire, although their bite is considered to be quite toxic. Sadly, the only commonality (other than the whole scales thing) is that, as a protected species, the Komodo dragon possibly could wind up being just as invisible as the mythical beasties. There are about 50 in captivity around the globe, which is probably one of the reasons Valley residents have turned out in droves to catch a glimpse at the bulky Indonesian creatures, who measure around seven feet long and are considered the largest lizards in the world. Well, they usually only see Ivan, the male, who's more social and often is found sunning himself on a rock in his half of their habitat located along the Tropics Trail. Gaia, his sister, is more of a recluse, preferring to hang out in the shade of her sleeping area. And though Komodos can be vicious — and reportedly have feasted on humans — Ivan seemed relatively docile, merely gazing at us through the Plexiglas while calmly darting his tongue out. Then again, they might've been sizing us up for a potential snack.

About 50,000 years ago, a chunk of rock the size of several freight-train engines fell from the sky near what is now Winslow, hitting the ground with a blast not unlike that of a nuclear bomb. In just 10 seconds, the explosion forged Meteor Crater, which is 4,000 feet across. That's kind of scary to contemplate. But also really nifty. We found the drive out to Meteor Crater well worth the long straightaway of Interstate 40, since we linked up the trip with visits to the Petrified National Forest and Homolovi State Park. But Meteor Crater, as far as holes in the ground go, is memorable — especially the intense wind on the crater's rim. The museum at the visitor's center is top-notch for a facility of its size, with dinosaur bones and a meteor video game that helps kids learn how easy it would be for their world to be destroyed by space rocks. We're just hoping that meteors don't strike twice in the same state.

You're going to need to pass a killer job application to see Arizona artist James Turrell's longest-running project. Turrell is an internationally acclaimed artist who works with natural and man-made light and environments to create ever-changing installations. His pieces have been featured in museums around the world, and since the '70s, he's been working on his biggest installation — inside an extinct, 400,000-year-old volcanic crater in northern Arizona.

But don't expect to ever see it.Turrell doesn't give public tours and has taken very few private guests into the evolving space to experience what he calls a "celestial vaulting." Because of the angles of the crater and the space Turrell has created, a viewer looking up sees the sky as a dome instead of a flat horizon, creating the feeling of being "on the edge of the Earth."Phases of construction have been ongoing since the '70s, but more than 1.3 million cubic yards of earth have been moved to shape the crater bowl, and construction continues in various tunnels and smaller spaces that utilize its natural angles and reflective surfaces to play with the light that trickles in. Don't bother trying to find it or access the entrance — the natural observatory is remote and very secure. Rumor has it, Turrell's looking for an administrative assistant for the project, but like we said, you're going to have to pass a few tests (and take a number in what's likely to be a long line of Turrell fans and artists) before you gain access.

There are a lot ultramodern things afoot (Air Traffic Control Simulator Lab, anyone?) at Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus, a 600-acre offshoot campus in southeast Mesa. The many professional and technical programs that characterize the Poly campus include a golf-management major with students to whom a golden golf swing means just as much as a great GPA. At the high-tech Ping Swing Analysis Lab, students can analyze their swing and harness the power of science to improve their skills. The lab, named after Phoenix-based golf equipment manufacturer Ping, resulted from a donation by the owners of Ping, the Solheim family. Ping also offers free tours of its north Phoenix factory and free walk-in fittings with their factory-trained professional club fitters.

Pressure has a way of bringing out the best in people. Take Scottsdale Community College engineering students Trung Dinh and Dmitri Mihailov, for instance, whose abilities to work under the gun helped them reign supreme at this year's Avnet Tech Games. The pair had five hours to design, assemble, and program a wheeled robot out of parts harvested from a Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 set and race it through a complex obstacle course faster than their opponents. Dinh and Mihailov succeeded, beating out a half-dozen teams from other post-secondary schools and winning $2,000 for school. Teaching college students from tech-minded fields how to thrive under pressure and utilize their skills in real-life situations are the goals of the games, which are thrown annually at the University of Advancing Technology and award scholarship money as prizes. Seven different challenges are staged, including such trying tasks as constructing and tweaking a PC to have the fastest processing speed possible, building a solar-powered water pump from scratch, and assembling a data network using patch cables. (Virtual competitions involving crafting cell phone apps and other digital-oriented contests are held online and are open to students across the country.) Recruiters from Microsoft, Cisco, and other tech firms also attend, which adds to the intense atmosphere, because no one wants to pull an epic fail in front of a future employer. Luckily, no one's ever shorted out any electronics with flop sweat.

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