Miami Beach

14-year-old Miami Beach student with scientific mind wins full FIU scholarship

Miami Beach Senior High student Rebecca Rauch-Thane, 14, received a scholarship from Florida International University based on her science fair project, where she proved there is soil contamination in Virginia Key/Key Biscayne by testing the coconut water from coconuts in the area for heavy metals.
Miami Beach Senior High student Rebecca Rauch-Thane, 14, received a scholarship from Florida International University based on her science fair project, where she proved there is soil contamination in Virginia Key/Key Biscayne by testing the coconut water from coconuts in the area for heavy metals. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Like most fourth-graders in Miami-Dade, Rebecca Rauch-Thane started participating in school science fairs because it was a class requirement.

But since then, the Miami Beach Senior High freshman has voluntarily entered the annual science fair competitions to enhance her aptitude and experience beyond the classroom.

“Certain opportunities you have to find out for yourself,” she said. “The competitions have opened up doors for me.”

The most recent in Rebecca’s long list of accolades is a full scholarship to Florida International University for when she graduates in three years.

“This is not something we normally do, but she has done such amazing work,” said Mike Heithaus, dean of the FIU College of Arts and Sciences. “She’s going to go a long way.”

The 14-year-old student caught FIU’s attention with her latest project on the soil contamination in Key Biscayne and Virginia Key with coconuts. Using an inexpensive testing kit, Rebecca tested coconut water for traces of heavy metals that would have been absorbed through the root system.

“This is a cost-effective way to test soil contamination in your own community,” said Rebecca, who lives in the Brickell area.

These areas were once dumping sites and have been tested for contaminants before, but Rebecca said “they were digging too deep” for samples. She presented her findings at a Virginia Key Park board meeting last month.

Rebecca’s parents have encouraged her aptitude in science, but also fueled her passion for other fields to complement her education.

“It’s a little different how they teach here,” said Rebecca’s mother, Moira Rauch-Thane, who attended a German school in Venezuela. “Programs like Cambridge and dual enrollment ... the concept was already implemented years ago.”

Aside from the school curriculum, Rebecca has taken virtual school courses, joined the volleyball team, the debate team and other school clubs. She also enjoys writing, and published a book based on a science project.

“We divide her time to rest and work and also be with her friends,” said Rauch-Thane. “It’s hard to keep up. She’s still 14. She’s still a kid.”

Over the summer breaks, Rebecca comes up with her next idea for a science fair project and gets most of the work done before the start of a new school year.

Last year, Rebecca was inspired by a typhoon in the Philippines and engineered a small radio receiver with copper metal plates to help with disaster relief efforts. The project won the U.S. Air Force for Outstanding Science or Engineering Fair Project.

“We tested it and received a letter of confirmation from Clear Channel Communications,” she said.

While many of her projects have focused on environmental science, Rebecca is still exploring different areas of interest. To help further her experience, she will start a dual-enrollment program this summer at FIU.

“We are working on finding her the perfect mentor,” Heithaus said. “We want to make sure our talented students have the opportunity to stay here in South Florida and work with the faculty we have.”

But first, Rebecca will compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh this May.

“The competitions give her a lot of opportunities,” her mother said. “It also gives her a sense of self-worth.’

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