Hot dog! Seventh-grader reinvents the weenie roast

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comOctober 5, 2012 

— Today will tell if the fertile imagination of a 12-year-old Merced boy pays off with one of three grand prizes in the Frankenweenie Science Fair, a collaboration of Disney Studios and the Discovery Science Center.

Christopher Rocci, a seventh-grader who is being home-schooled through the Hickman Charter School, is one of six finalists for the top award. His Rube Goldberg-inspired Frankenweenie Roaster took two months to build and has more twists and turns than a Sierra highway.

It takes about 12 seconds for a ball bearing to traverse an elaborate path that leads to a minute's worth of cooking of a hot dog by using a resistive heating process.

The science fair coincides with today's release of the Disney Studios' stop-motion animated film "Frankenweenie" by filmmaker Tim Burton. The movie tells about a boy and his efforts to bring his beloved dog Sparky back to life.

Christopher has plans more grand than a behind-the-scenes tour of Disney Studios. He would like to see miniature keychain-sized souvenir replicas of his Frankenweenie Roaster. Better yet, he would like to see a full-sized thrill ride made of his device for Disneyland's Southern California amusement park.

Christopher's mom, Samantha, said her son's imagination is unbelievable and knows no bounds. His creative pursuits extend to all aspects of his life.

"He wakes up with all of these ideas," his mother said. "I can't keep up with him. I was a liberal studies major and was on my way to being a teacher when I got pregnant. I never expected to have three children interested in science."

And Christopher has a bigger idea up his sleeve. He would like to talk Disney into allowing him to host a science-themed television program for the Disney Channel. He would visit science exploration centers throughout the United States as part of the show.

Christopher's father, Mike, the Merced Sun-Star's director of operations, agrees that his son is very creative.

"We have to reel him back within reason," Mike Rocci said. "He has a great imagination. It's scary sometimes. He tends to be very creative."

The Frankenweenie Roaster is almost 20 inches tall and deep, and and over 31 inches long. Its back is made from pegboard; the display board is 3 feet tall and 4 feet long. Diodes are put in the hot dog and it lights up. One of the preliminary tasks allows current to go through forks and cook the hot dog.

Construction of the roaster started in August and concluded in September. Christopher said considerable trial-and-error took place during the exhibit's fabrication.

"You have to go back and fix it so there are no glitches," he said.

The youngster's action-packed life includes involvement in the master acting program at Playhouse Merced. He has been involved there for six years and has appeared in eight to 10 theater productions in the Central Valley.

While he has at least six years to wait, Christopher has fallen in love with the University of California at Berkeley campus, particularly its paleontology exhibits. His interests cover physics, robotics and engineering.

He has been home-schooled for three years. His language arts curriculum is science-based, one of the strengths of the rural Stanislaus County charter school.

He characterizes himself as an innovator. That's evident in the Frankenweenie Roaster's two incline ramps, pulley system, mousetrap, levers, switches and ball bearing.

Last spring, Christopher got a second prize in the regional Science Olympiad held in conjunction with the charter school. Christopher's twin brother Anthony is interested in science, too, as is his sister, 9-year-old Anne Kathryn.

Discovery Science Center representatives said all of the projects had to present an experimentally based research design illustrating scientific methodology, or a demonstration-exhibition of a science or engineering concept based on themes from the movie "Frankenweenie."

The non-profit Orange County-based Discovery Science Center has more than 120 interactive hands-on exhibits.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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