Battle of the Brains winners Olathe North, Leawood Elementary will see their exhibits at Science City

The judging in the Battle of the Brains at Union Station was supposed to lead to one final winner.

One school’s idea — out of some 500 entries — would become the next interactive exhibit at Science City.

When the moment arrived, two teams stood on the risers Wednesday under Union Station’s cathedral ceiling — Blue Valley’s Leawood Elementary School and Olathe North High School.

Time for one last tease. As if leaving the choice up to the hundreds of students, parents and others in the crowd, Burns McDonnell Chairman Greg Graves called out for a vote by applause.

Should we choose Olathe?

But that would leave behind the Leawood Elementary kids’ exhibit, “Genetech.”

Mostly 9- and 10-year-old children had been inspired by hearing their teacher, Brittani Wilton, talk about her genetic disease, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

She has to cope with hyper-flexive joints and stretchy, fragile skin. Her students found the world of genetics — how the body’s traits get handed down — fascinating.

“We were getting really excited learning about DNA,” 10-year-old Jacob Metzner said, “and how it makes a human.”

By the time they had packaged up their plans to send to the judges at Science City and Burns McDonnell, they had created a vision into the world of genetics and DNA.

They imagined interactive stations to build your personal DNA structure, create a baby alien and get your picture taken with your clone.

Or should we choose Leawood?

That would leave behind Olathe North’s “Tapped Out” — the students’ plan to awaken our collective senses to the impending water crisis by showcasing the wonders of water, the history of its use and the urgency of conservation.

They stood on the risers hoping badly that someday soon, crowds could come to Science City “to share the vision with us,” 17-year-old Cooper Yerby said.

And the Olathe students had a much better understanding than most of the students in the crowd of the continuing adventure that would await the winners.

Another class of Olathe North students a couple years ahead of them had won the first Battle of the Brains, bringing “Unplugged” and an exploration of the science of energy to Science City.

The winning students will get to put on hard hats and help survey the build site with the project engineers over the next several months. They’ll draft more detailed ideas and weigh them, seated at a table with the professionals.

“It’s as if they’ve been hired to throw in a bid for an engineering company or a design company,” Olathe North teacher Rhonda Reist said. “They have to understand marketing, feasibility, financials, accessibility …”

The new group of Olathe students spent many hours brainstorming and developing their idea, Reist said.

“They get no grade for doing that, but they are crazy-invested in it,” she said.

That’s why, Yerby said, he and the other Olathe team members had been gripping each other’s hands “until they turned purple” while they listened to the names of the runners-up among the 20 finalists called out one by one, hoping they’d eventually stand alone.

The children at Leawood Elementary were “linking our arms and crossing our fingers,” 9-year-old Aziz Bisaria said, as every other elementary team’s name was called, leaving them alone as that division’s top winner.

For Olathe and Leawood, a $50,000 grant for each of the schools was already in the bag.

The Burns McDonnell Foundation has committed $1 million to build an exhibit, as well as hand out a total of $155,000 in grant dollars to the 20 finalist schools — all part of a mission to boost the city and encourage more students into the wide-open fields of science and engineering.

“Great cities should have great science centers,” Graves said. “If a kid can be inspired to a career in science or medicine, that’s better for all of us.”

All the finalists had strong ideas, and the two division winners’ ideas faced each other like a perfect set of bookends representing Kansas City.

Olathe’s water engineering idea and Leawood’s DNA-based idea “hit on two of the core competencies of the Kansas City area,” Graves said — health sciences and engineering. “They were two terrific proposals.”

Moments after the crowd had cheered out their collective votes, Graves ended the tease with the day’s surprise announcement:

“We’re going to build



The elementary children’s jaws dropped. Elementary and high school students alike pumped fists in excitement.

Said 9-year-old Ben Randall: “This is so awesome!”