Greg Graves paused to take photos with his phone of smiling kids in bustling Science City as he passed through the other day.
Nothing pleases the chairman and chief executive officer of Burns & McDonnell more than to see future engineers excited about the sciences.
To encourage that enthusiasm, the Burns & McDonnell Foundation will invest more than $1 million in additional money to fund a third Battle of the Brains competition this fall. The first two rounds have resulted in three new exhibits at Science City based on concepts developed by students in elementary and higher grades.
As before, the winning BotB 3 submission will have to involve science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) and will have to be practical enough to be translated into working, educational exhibits.
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But the winner this time will be built outdoors and will be incorporated in a $7.5 million expansion and improvement that will be the biggest project at Union Station since the depot was renovated in the 1990s.
“We want it to operate and function outside, so the students are going to have to think like engineers, like scientists,” Graves said. “How will the thing be weatherproofed? How will it relate to its outdoor environment? I think it’s going to be the best Battle of the Brains ever. For sure, it’s going to be the toughest problem for teachers and their STEM kids.”
Gifts from the Burns & McDonnell Foundation and in-kind services from the company already have amounted to more than $5 million in improvements to Science City, which has seen double-digit percentage increases in attendance in each of the last three years.
Union Station head George Guastello said the next step is to open the science center to the plaza area behind the station and between it and the parking garage. The BotB 3 exhibit will be immediately west of the existing Science City on ground where the railroad tracks once carried thousands of passengers into Union Station.
Just west of the exhibit, the concrete will be removed to create a grassy festival lawn with a stage for events.
The costliest element will be vehicle and pedestrian bridges to the parking garage. The whole project is expected to be completed by 2017.
Union Station’s board recently selected Burns & McDonnell to do the design and build the entire project. Guastello said the firm was chosen as the best applicant in a competitive process.
Graves said he chose not to announce BotB 3 while Union Station officials were deciding which company to hire for the project.
“I wouldn’t let our foundation vote on making this grant and I wouldn’t let anybody talk to George until they made the design-build decision,” he said. “I didn’t want there to be any perceived conflict.”
Graves said the fee his company normally would earn on the expansion project will be donated back to the project.
More than 5,000 students have participated in the previous Battle of the Brains competitions, which began in 2011. Schools in an 18-county area are eligible and may enter as many times as they wish. Winning teams in the elementary and the upper grade divisions receive a $50,000 grant for their schools to be used in STEM education. Finalists receive smaller grants.
Entries are due Sept. 11, and a panel of judges will select finalists in November. The public will be able to vote for the winners. Details can be found at battleofthebrainskc.com. Officials are announcing BotB 3 now so teachers can make plans for the fall.
Teams from Olathe North High School have won in each of the previous Battle of the Brains rounds. Their projects resulted in the Science of Energy and Every Last Drop exhibits at Science City. In the second competition, in 2013, the winning entry in the elementary division, from Leawood Elementary in the Blue Valley school district, was also built. It is called Unlock the Code and explores DNA.
Only one winning entry will be built in the third round of competition.
The Burns & McDonnell Foundation hopes the Battle of the Brains is inspiring students to pursue science degrees and careers.
“We have to get back focused on STEM in this country or we’re going to be left behind,” Graves said.