Olathe North wins Battle of the Brains, Science City gets young ideas

By next summer visitors to Science City will be exploring how mechanical power is transformed into energy — by running in giant hamster wheels to generate electricity.

That fun yet educational concept by juniors and seniors at Olathe North High School won top honors at the Burns & McDonnell Battle of the Brains competition. It also earned them $50,000 and the privilege of seeing their project, “Unplugged,” installed as a working exhibit in Science City at Union Station.

The students felt good about their chances but were delighted to hear themselves declared winners in an awards rally Monday at Union Station, surrounded by hundreds of other budding scientists from schools across the metro area.

“I don’t think it will really hit us until we begin working with the engineers,” said Olathe North junior Emily Johnson.

A project called “Hall of Magnets” also won a $50,000 prize for fourth- and fifth-graders at Richardson Elementary School in Lee’s Summit.

“It was completely their idea,” said Jenny Reidlinger, the teacher for the school’s gifted program. “Magnetism is timeless, technology is not going to change it, and they wanted to build exhibits that kids could feel.”

The Battle of the Brains competition was meant to be exciting, but it also carried a message from sponsor Burns & McDonnell, which surprised Union Station officials Monday by announcing its foundation will increase its gift to Science City from a previously announced $1 million to $1.25 million.

Greg Graves, CEO of the international engineering company based in Kansas City, said the Battle of the Brains and the investment in Science City are self-serving in a way.

“We need math and science to rise to the level of importance in Kansas City area schools where it ought to be,” Graves said, adding that teachers sometimes need help in making science vibrant. “We’re happy to do it with big programs and a whole lot of money.”

The Battle of the Brains drew 560 entries from 456 teams of 2,500 individual students from 128 schools in 35 area districts.

Entries were winnowed to 20 finalists by judges whose scoring accounted for 70 percent of the rankings. The remaining 30 percent was determined by public votes on the Web last week. More than 60,000 votes were cast. Schools went all out to encourage people in their communities to vote. A bank of laptops was even made available for people to vote for Richardson Elementary at a Lee’s Summit PTA meeting last week.

Aside from the top winners in the elementary and secondary school categories, four runner-up schools won $5,000 each, and the rest of the finalists received $2,500. In addition, each student finalist received a medal on a blue ribbon and a bag of science-related swag.

The monetary awards are to be used for science, technology, math and engineering programs in the winning schools. Reidlinger said her students at Richardson are considering buying a cartful of iPads for their school as well as creating a science lab.

Junior Sarah Kruger of Olathe North said she hoped her school would invest in more science equipment, which can be expensive.

Several Olathe North students on the team said they were considering careers in science or technology. Junior Brady Weyrauch is leaning toward chemical or mechanical engineering. Junior Michelle Perez is also interested in chemical engineering as it relates to biofuels.

“I think it is challenging and hard enough to keep my interest for a career,” Perez said.

All of which is music to the ear for Graves of Burns & McDonnell, who said his father encouraged his own interest in science. Graves said engineers from his company will work on the Olathe North exhibit with a goal of opening it by next summer.

The Burns & McDonnell Foundation is sponsoring another new exhibit for Science City called Science on a Sphere. Set to open in March, it will consist of a giant Earth globe on which images can be projected to teach about weather, tectonics and other natural sciences.

Graves, who is a member of the Union Station board, said Science City is on the rebound but needed a little extra boost.

“We need to put some of the science back in Science City,” Graves said Monday. “It was a great idea when it started but it had maybe reached its maturity. We’re trying to reinvigorate it.”