Omar Mata wanted answers.

His old phone constantly overheated, draining his battery at a faster rate than normal. Rather than chalk it up to faulty wiring or poor design, Mata, a Pioneer Valley High School senior, traded his phone for a photovoltaic cell and channeled his everyday frustration into a question: Would cooling a device (like a phone or solar cell) have an effect on its energy consumption or generation?

Mata will present his answer Friday at the annual Santa Barbara County Science Fair in Corwin Pavilion on the UCSB campus. There, he and six other high school students from Santa Maria, will compete for the gold and try to secure one of 24 spots at the State Science Fair in late April in Los Angeles.

"They all worked very hard," Riccardo Magni, head of the Pioneer Valley science department and adviser to the seven competitors, said Wednesday. "It's a great experience for kids and one they're going to remember for the rest of their life. Every year now, we've had students win awards. There are no guarantees in life, but they've been extremely competitive."

Nine years ago, Magni started the Summer Science Institute to promote science education and provide students from northern Santa Barbara County an opportunity to compete in the county fair. Funded entirely by outside donations (ERG Resources, an oil and natural gas company in Santa Maria, has signed on to support the program through 2018), the six-week program provides students the mentoring and support to create a science project ready for competition.

Participants are selected every spring from a pool of applicants from all four high schools in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District -- Pioneer Valley, Santa Maria, Righetti and Delta. Even if students don't win or advance, Magni said, the program changes the way students engage with science and academics.

"Many of the students are the first ones in their family to go to college," he added. "[Students who completed the program] have not only wound up with college degrees but jobs in STEM fields. It's very satisfying to watch them grow, blossom and make a career out of it."

Last year, Mata's project regarding biomimicry (the design and production of materials from biological entities or processes) and its impact on power production from wind turbines, took third place in the physical sciences division. He's hoping to top that this year and make it to the state competition.

Like Mata, Santa Maria High School senior Elizah Hernandez will return to the competition this year. Continuing her work regarding bacteria and cosmetic products (she placed third last year for measuring the differences in bacteria quantity between high-end and inexpensive makeup), Hernandez chose to measure the amount of bacteria present in new and used makeup applicators.

"I know a lot of women and people use makeup, so I wanted to know how safe they are to use and how it affects their faces," she said.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga