Kids from KC public grade school get into science

March 24, 2011

The Kansas City Star

The brass-plated doors of Union Station opened, and the Faxon Elementary School children stepped in with their trifolded science fair projects, gaping at the cathedral ceiling.

"It felt like a mansion," said Debonay West, 11.

In the Grand Hall before them, rows of tables were already beginning to fill with student projects from schools mostly not like theirs " an urban public school.

They'd made it. Twelve of them, with seven projects between them.

They'd crossed the barriers that seem to beleaguer so many other public schools that serve populations with more minority and low-income students — barriers usually not of the children's making:

  • Pressured teachers who lack the time to add more after-hours work.
  • Curriculum that emphasizes desk work in the state-tested subjects of communication arts and mathematics.
  • Cultural environments that can discourage science fair work.

In the case of Faxon, an eager principal, willing teachers and a volunteer scientist only had to get these Kansas City School District children started, and they were game to do the rest.

"We accomplished a goal," 12-year-old Carlos Liner said, standing alongside teammate Deonte Gwynn at the display of their research into battery life.

"I felt a little nervous," Carlos admitted.

"A little bit scared," agreed Deonte.

But they looked and felt at home.

In many ways, the Greater Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair, under way through Saturday at Union Station, remains strong at a time when many reports from across the country tell of fairs weakening or even closing.

The trick is getting more urban schools to take the leap.

Of the 1,410 students in the 2010 science fair, 240 came from public schools or public charter schools in Kansas City or close suburbs where at least half the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

Of the rest, 678 came from other suburban public schools; 479 came from Catholic and private schools; and 13 were home-schooled.

The organization that manages it, Science Pioneers, has maintained a healthy army of volunteers, including many industry scientists, mathematicians and engineers ready to help demystify the science fair process for students, teachers and parents.

 

Its website links to resources to help motivate rookie teachers and students. And for educators worried about teaching the required standards looming in state tests, the site also shows the many places project-learning can meet Missouri and Kansas demands.

 

The Faxon students, wandering among the projects, getting their pictures snapped by excited parents, played out the kind of story that the Science Pioneers organization wants to see repeated in other schools.

First-year Faxon Principal Angela Underwood started it. She had guided several students to the science fair the past two years as a science teacher at Hartman Elementary School in Kansas City.

She knew she wanted to spark the same movement at Faxon but was overwhelmed by administrative duties, she said.

Then came a phone call. The mother of one of her Hartman students called to tell her that Science Pioneers had asked her son to display his 2010 project at the annual "Meet the Mentor Day" in November.

"It almost made me cry," she said, thinking of the boy now asked to model his work to inspire other students.

The principal got on the phone and began calling Faxon parents, finding some who would bring their children to the annual Saturday workshop that Science Pioneers puts on to get students started.

"I thought it would be interesting," 12-year-old La"Shay Witherspoon said.

But then came the big question: What are we going to do?

By January, Underwood had more than a dozen interested students and some committed teachers, still trying to find their way when retired research veterinarian Dennis McCurdy unexpectedly buzzed in at the front door.

"I heard they were interested in science," he said.

McCurdy has been one of the volunteer mentors and a science fair judge since the late 1970s. Of late he has been mentoring students at Brookside Frontier Math and Science Charter School, which has been sending nearly two dozen students to the fair.

A few days later, Underwood set up McCurdy in a room and rounded up some 15 prospective science fair students to see him with their composition books. It was a snowy afternoon, McCurdy recalled, but they stayed with him, enrapt, asking questions, until the buses rolled up.

He'd seen that look before.

"Their eyes light up, and they say, 'I can do that.'"

The teachers relish the support, too, he said. He knows they have so much to do, with so much expected of them.

"Any willing teacher is sticking her neck out," he said.

Teacher Beverly Dunn delivered the students Wednesday morning at Union Station, accompanying them off the bus.

"It's hectic," she said. "Kind of a like the first night of a performance."

But they'd reviewed science literature. They'd developed hypotheses and written abstracts. They'd tested things like acid on egg shells, or the reactions between vinegar and baking soda.

"This generation is changing," said Joe Hunter, 34, after taking a picture of his daughter, Daijonae West, 9, next to her project.

"My generation thought it was nerdy," he said. "But this generation doesn't care about that. They want to be more book smart."

The way these Faxon students see it, they're just getting started. Every time the question was put to them whether they would be back next year, they answered without hesitation.

"I totally would," 11-year-old Chantal Childress said.

"Learn more about science," teammate Katierra Davis said.

"Yeah," Katherine Cade said, "and get better."

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The details
The work of more than 1,250 students in grades four through 12 will be on display at the science fair from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at Union Station. The fair is free and open to the public. To learn more, go to http://www.sciencepioneers.org.