ANTIOCH -- The weather balloon experiment that sent a Hello Kitty toy almost 18 miles above the Earth is now an award-winning science project that is sending its creator to a regional competition.
Lauren Rojas, 13, was named one of four top award winners at Cornerstone Christian School's seventh-grade science fair. Awards were announced and passed out during the school's chapel service Wednesday morning.
"I was really excited," said Rojas, flashing her braces with a smile.
She was one of two winners in the physical science category for her weather balloon's 90-minute test of the effects of air pressure and temperature.
Students in the auditorium cheered and whistled loudly when Lauren's name was called and she received a medal.
"I think it reaffirms her desire to study and will push her that much more," said science teacher Annette Cluck, noting there were a lot of good experiments from the 32-student class.
Before the accolade, there was some nervousness among the Rojas family about her chances of winning.
"I had some butterflies in my stomach," the seventh-grader said.
Added mother Cheryl Martinez: "I couldn't help but think what would have happened, and I didn't want her to be discouraged."
The Hello Kitty faux rocket's flight, the four-camera documentation of its journey, and YouTube video of flight footage over pop music earned the shy teenager national and international attention earlier this month.
As of Wednesday morning, the video had more than 782,000 views.
Lauren and her father, Rod, launched the balloon about two months ago from a Livermore parking lot. It remained airborne for about 90 minutes before landing in a tree in a park area west of San Jose -- 47.5 miles from its takeoff spot. They found the balloon by attaching a GPS tracking device.
A fan of Hello Kitty since age 6, Lauren added a tiny figurine she received from her dad to the rocket, along with a pink ribbon sticker to honor breast cancer survivors in her family. She also fastened some pink Hello Kitty-themed tape to the capsule.
The experiment has received national and international media attention, including from Canada, India and the Discovery Channel. Sanrio, the company that created Hello Kitty, and High Altitude Science, the company that created the weather balloon and flight computer, both feature the flight on their websites.
The school is still abuzz about video and its popularity.
"It was just so creative. I loved it," said fifth-grader Sarah Leiss.
Added fellow fifth-grader Rachel Wood: "Everyone's been talking about it around here a lot."
But the video did not count toward the project's judging in the science fair.
The standards for the project were based on a poster board display of the project, a written report, and an oral presentation. The criteria the panel of 10 high school seniors used to judge the project included points for creativity, following the scientific method, thoroughness, technical skill, and neatness.
"(The judges) are usually really tough -- a lot tougher than if parents did it," Cluck said. "They tend to scrutinize (the projects) more since they remember having to do those projects."
To make matters worse, Lauren was suffering from the flu and had a sore throat on the day of her oral presentation.
"She had to suck it up. It speaks very highly of her and her dedication to the project," Cluck said.
Martinez said she had to tried to reschedule the presentation to no avail, and she had to drag Lauren out of bed to get her there.
"I was just hoping they could understand what I was saying," Lauren said.
The Association of Christian Schools International science fair competition for the Northern California region will be held in early March at Cornerstone, school officials said.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.