Landon Bridgers was poised Thursday morning to share about how he created "Tornado in a Box," the title of his exhibit at this year's STEM Fair.

Plugged into a 12-volt battery, its components included a mix of hot water and dry ice, the Norwayne Middle School seventh-grader said.

"The fan creates a vortex inside the box and it spins the steam created by the dry ice," he said.

He spent the bulk of the past two weeks preparing for this moment, and the steady stream of students from across the county did not disappoint.

"It's been crazy. There was a bunch of people," he said during a brief lull between groups.

This marks the fourth year for the STEM Fair, an acronym which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Hosted by the Wayne Education Network of the Chamber of Commerce along with Wayne County Public Schools, the emphasis is on raising awareness of the subjects and future career opportunities in each area.

The event was held in the newly-opened Maxwell Center, drawing nearly three times the number of participants from the year before, organizers said.

"Last year, we had 114, this year we have 340 student exhibitors," said Janet Brock of the Chamber.

The 2018 edition had 148 student exhibits, she said. It also boasted representation from every public school in Wayne County, with an estimated 1,500 seventh-graders from public, private and home-school settings attending.

Carver Elementary School's entry featured a "Gallery of STEM Pioneers," a living museum with students portraying historical characters. At the touch of a button, the fourth-graders were ready to "come to life," in character.

The idea came from Carver teacher Robin Casey, said fellow fourth-grade teacher Michelle Holland.

"We're just trying to be diverse," Holland said. "Some of the characters we read about, inventors like Thomas Edison, some that we have read about and are in our stories, like Amelia Earhart. One student found his own character."

Nine-year-old Laylah Grady prepared by studying up on Earhart. Her backdrop featured photos and news clippings about the female pilot, as well as a map with the last flight plan she took before disappearing.

"She realized that she wanted to fly at age 10, when she saw a plane at a state fair in Iowa," the fourth-grader said.

Classmate Jabreya Bradshaw portrayed a lesser-known character, but one she admired.

Dorothy Vaughan was hired by NASA in December 1943, a mathematician and "human computer," one of the female African-Americans portrayed in the recent film, "Hidden Figures."

Jabreya was excited but admittedly nervous before the presentation, she said. But the shared dream of pursuing a similar path as her hero helped, she said.

"I'm trying to do my dreams," she said. "When I grow up I want to be the second Dorothy Vaughan."

A most popular booth was the painting simulator from the autobody department at Wayne Community College.

"It's a real attention-getter for these kids," said instructor Bryant Keel. "It's in 3-D so it's a little more real.

"They all see the helmet and ultimately they know this is virtual reality."

Allen Melrose, a seventh-grader at Rosewood Middle, donned the helmet and slowly waved the hand-held device around to apply black paint to a car door.

"It was pretty cool," he said afterward. "I have always loved virtual reality.

"I think I did good. I didn't get many red spots."

Stuffed animals were another draw, but not the toy variety -- the taxidermy kind.

"A lot of people are asking if they're real, if bobcats actually live here," said Samantha Eubanks, environmental educator with A Time for Science, based in Grifton and Greenville. In addition to the animals on display, the company provided a mobile planetarium.

"We're hoping we can inspire some of these kids to pursue careers in STEM fields," she said. "We're in a rural area so it's nice to be able to bring this out to this area."

Tommy King, chairman of this year's event, has been part of the planning committee since it began, serving as co-chairman last year.

"I saw somewhere that 80 percent of new jobs or careers being created in the future will be STEM-related," he said. "This is definitely something you want for kids to pursue and be excited about."

And perhaps it goes without saying, but the educators -- those who took advantage of teachable moments and prepped kids for the event, as well as those who loaded up their students on a bus for the field day -- were equally enthusiastic about the fair.

"This is what I came into teaching for, things like this, that students learn from and enjoy," Holland said.

Awards were also handed out, a new addition this year.

"We're giving first, second and third place in each area, elementary, middle and high school," Brock said. "We're giving mini grants to the teacher advisor -- first place is a $300 mini grant, second is $150 and third is $75 -- for STEM-related projects they can do in the classroom."

The following schools and projects were announced Thursday afternoon:

Elementary: First place, "Got Cover" by Northeast Elementary; second, "Inertia" by Wayne Preparatory Academy; and third place, "Yuck Mold Spam" by Meadow Lane Elementary.

Middle: First place, "Is a Slow Burn Worth It?" by Wayne School of Engineering; second, "Worm Works" by Wayne School of Engineering; and third, "Towers of Power" by Norwayne Middle.

High school: First place, "STEM Guitars" by Wayne School of Engineering; second, "DNA Extraction" by Goldsboro High School; and third, "Can a Water Flea Survive an All-Nighter?" by Charles B. Aycock.