Sparticl.org is like Facebook for nerds.
That's how a Richland teen describes the new science website targeted at middle and high schoolers.
Naveena Bontha is one of 14 students from around the country who worked with Twin Cities Public Television in Minnesota and multinational corporation 3M to develop and fine-tune the site, which launched Oct. 1.
Sparticl has user profiles, comments, games and videos like other social media sites.
It also has stories on volcanoes, animated videos on how enzymes help digestion and information on cryptid animals such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster.
"Everything is just really interesting," said the 13-year-old Hanford High School freshman.
Developers said they hope the site not only helps students with their classes but that its activities and slick design fosters more curiosity and long-term interest in science, technology and math.
"It's a deliberate effort," said Richard Hudson, director of science productions for Twin Cities Public Television.
The station began working on a concept to develop a science-centric website for adolescents about three years ago, he said. 3M, which employs numerous engineers and other highly trained professionals, has underwritten the project.
The idea developed out of the struggles facing young students who try to research scientific and other complex subjects via Internet search engines only to be bombarded with complex and dense dissertations or misinformation.
"All they want is something inviting and simple," Hudson said.
Naveena was sent a survey several months ago, gauging her interest as a potential beta tester for the site because of her past participation in science fairs.
"I figured, 'It's summer. I'm bored," she said.
But her responses earned her interviews with station executives and a trip to Minneapolis to visit the studios and 3M's headquarters. Hudson said he and others were impressed by her comments and appointed Naveena to Sparticl's Teen Advisory Board.
"She was very vocal and really engaged in the site," he said.
Naveena, who said she enjoys all aspects of science and goes by the handle VEEN11 on Sparticl, said she was turned off by other science websites that catered to her age group.
"Most were really dumbed down," she said. "It made you feel stupid just by reading them."
Naveena has advocated for a simpler and less cluttered design for the site, saying it can be distracting.
Nevertheless, she said Sparticl is a place she likes to spend her time, exploring topics and talking about science with friends and other site users.
Her father, Jagannadha Bontha, said he likes Sparticl's accessibility. A chemical engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, he's often helped Naveena and her younger sister with science school work but says there is a delicate balance between inspiring and stifling curiosity.
"One of the toughest challenges we face is finding the best articles and making sure kids can read it," he said.
Hudson said interest in the site has been better than expected. It had more than 50,000 visitors in its first three weeks -- half its goal of 100,000 visitors by the end of 2013.
People looking at the site give it more than a glance. Repeat visitors spend nearly 10 minutes at a time exploring, while registered users are there for 20 minutes or more.
Changes to the site are already in store, such as allowing registered users to share content and developing pages for people to post their favorite items much like the social site Pinterest.
"We want the users to contribute," Hudson said.
Naveena said she hasn't been able to spend as much time on the site lately because of schoolwork but she plans to continue contributing and she's talking it up to her friends and teachers. She expects the site to continue to attract both science-loving and non-science loving students, for the same reason it attracted her.
"At the top it asks, "What are you curious about?'" she said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver