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'Battle of the Brains' brings students' ideas to life at Union Station's Science City

January 7, 2015

01/06/2015 3:27 PM | UPDATED: 

 01/06/2015 4:32 PM

Marisa Madeira (left), 17, and Cooper Yerby, 18, both Olathe North High School students, take the Archimedes Screw for a spin with Burns & McDonnell CEO Greg Graves during the opening ceremony for their Every Last Drop exhibit. SHANE KEYSER THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Do you ever want to try on some dimples? Or maybe get rid of yours?

Of course you don’t, because you likely know that dimples — like hair and eye color — are genetic traits hardwired into you. You either have dimples, or you don’t. You can’t just take them on and off as you would a pair of shoes.

At least, you couldn’t before Science City at Union Station made it possible.

The Try-a-Trait machine is part of Science City’s newest offerings, a pair of installations conceived by two student groups that won the Battle of the Brains, a tech education and design contest sponsored by the engineering firm Burns & McDonnell, a longtime benefactor of Science City.

The winning teams came from Leawood Elementary School and Olathe North High School. And thanks to money and engineering expertise provided by Burns & McDonnell, the students could see their ideas turned into high-tech exhibits that Kansas City area residents will visit for years to come.

After you’re done trying a trait, you can move to the other side of the interactive playground to a sophisticated sand table with a dynamic topographical display projected from overhead. As you move your hand over the grains shaping miniature landscapes, the projection reacts in real time — registering changes in height and showing how water would flow around the landscape.

The precipitation runoff display is part of Every Drop of Water, conceived by a 25-member team from Olathe North.

Try-a-Trait comes courtesy of an eight-student team from Leawood Elementary. Their entry resulted in the new Science City exhibit Genetics: Unlock the Code, a crash course in the science of heritability.

It features a clone machine — a combination of camera, screen and timed flash — enabling participants to stand next to pictorial copies of themselves, as well as copies of copies.

This is what happens when you let the kids run the show.

To Union Station’s top executive, it makes perfect business sense to employ students as creative directors for Science City.

“We are a customer-focused organization. We want to know who our customers are and what they want. What better way to get that than to ask them?” said George Guastello, Union Station president and CEO.

For Burns & McDonnell, the payoff isn’t as immediate, but in recent years, the company and its foundation have contributed more than $5 million to overhaul more than half the exhibits in Science City.

The firm’s leadership, Guastello said, has always made it clear that Burns & McDonnell is making the investment to help build an ample workforce fluent in the language of the future.

Even with over-the-top elements like Try-a-Trait, the new Union Station exhibits — unveiled in December — could have been a lot crazier still.

“On the water one, specifically I know they talked about like, a three-story Archimedes screw. And we’re like, ‘Aah, well, I wouldn’t — no,’” Burns & McDonnell senior architect Greg Goss said with a laugh.

It fell to him to discuss cost constraints with the students.

“Second is, we don’t even know if we can make it work if it’s that big,” he continued.

In the end, they settled on a screw-and-cylinder pump around 10 feet long. The firm tried to get as close as possible to the winning concepts, Goss said, but part of the competition’s challenge was to find the right balance between awesome and executable.

Each student team, Goss said, was to propose a conceptually grand idea, but one that fit within the limits of what was physically and financially possible. During design charrettes with the winners in early 2014, the Burns & McDonnell employees negotiated with the students on their concepts, giving them an appreciation of what it takes to move from dream to reality.

Still, the initial concepts didn’t vault too far into the esoteric, said Northland resident Brady Ritter, a graphic designer at Burns & McDonnell.

“These (winning ideas) were two things that you could really relate to,” he said. “They weren’t farfetched ideas.”

This is Ritter’s second tour of duty with the contest. Two Battle of the Brains contests have been held so far, and he’s worked on both, from judging to execution. The competition, he said, is guaranteed to draw more than a fair number of big ideas.

“They can get pretty entertaining,” Ritter said, “but these were more real world.”

The unveiling last month marked the end of a two-year process for the Leawood and Olathe students.

Ritter and other Burns & McDonnell volunteers alongside Union Station staffers first whittled the 200 entries to a group of 20. Then, the public weighed in via online ballot, input which constituted 30 percent of a team’s score.

Burns & McDonnell awarded grants totaling $155,000 to all 20 finalists.

The winning schools got $50,000 each to enhance their science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, curriculums.

Grants of $5,000 went to teams from Winnetonka High School in the Northland, Cordill-Mason Elementary School in Blue Springs, and Longview Farm Elementary School and Summit Technology Academy, both in Lee’s Summit.

The other 14 schools were given $2,500 each.

Tackling the science of genetics was more than an intellectual exercise for the kids at Leawood Elementary School.

Their gifted education teacher, Brittani Wilton, is dealing with a genetic disorder that has given her unusually fragile skin tissue and acute joint complications.

Wilton has turned the students on to genetics by sharing her experience with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. To that end, Wilton has brought her MRI scans to class for students to analyze and has debriefed with them after surgeries.

Wilton said her condition has given the students not only a window into her world but a broader appreciation of the importance of being lifelong learners.

“A lot of times students lose that learning in real life,” Wilton said, which is why she often shares her intellectual insights in class — not only on her medical issues but other aspects of daily life, like new software she just learned.

When the opportunity arose to participate in Battle of the Brains, the students wanted to explore a topic that already was deeply personal for them.

Since this was her second attempt at the contest as an instructor, Wilton was supportive but realistic.

“We sat down and I asked them, ‘Are we going to put our everything into this?’” Wilton said.

Her fourth-graders from last year took up the challenge with zeal. Their research led them to collegiate material and genetic computer modeling used in doctoral studies.

Wilton also impressed upon them the importance of the public polling portion of the contest, a liability for her students the first time. They worked the phones and called relatives both distant and near, pitching Genetics: Unlock the Code.

Wilton said the Burns & McDonnell team green-lighted most of her students’ ideas except the most over-the-top ones, like the proposal to turn the staircase into a giant double helix. That one gave the accountants nightmares.

Other ideas, like the Dance Dance Revolution-cum-Tetris game DNA Dance-Off, came directly from an idea the students had discussed in class.

Wilton said the DNA Dance-Off, which in Science City is a stomp-to-the-screen workout, started as a simple little jig made up mostly of hand movements. It fell upon the collective efforts of the students and the firm’s engineers and designers to harness the strength of that concept and flesh it out into the interactive station.

While demonstrating the clone machine — which overlays multiple selfies one over the other — Leawood Elementary student Jake Metzner talked about the many ways that a clone or five would benefit him day to day: One version of him could go to school while the other attended to other responsibilities.

“If he wanted to, sometimes I could go to swim practice, too,” Jake said, not taking his eyes off the screen where a third Jake had appeared.

Jake, who admitted knowing little about genetics before his teacher inspired him, effortlessly informed the family watching him that 24 percent of the DNA between humans and grapes is shared.

After competing in Battle of the Brains, Jake now wants to become a doctor, specifically the one who will cure cancer.

To say Leawood Elementary’s entry was a game-changer would be more accurate than you know.

Olathe North was going to be the sole winner until judges saw the Leawood students demonstrate a mature understanding of a very young science, said Jeff Rosenblatt, director of Science City.

That sort of fluency, from fourth-graders, put them in a dead heat with the high school team.

“To (the younger students), it was a challenge, a more obtuse topic,” said Rosenblatt. “And they brought it down to a level you could relate to.”

Guastello remembers that Genetics: Unlock the Code caused an immediate gridlock among the judges.

“It took all of our breaths away,” he said. “We kept looking at one another and said, ‘How can we not do this?’”

Judges on the Burns & McDonnell side — specifically Chairman and CEO Greg Graves and community involvement lead Julee Koncak — eventually declared that the contest must have two winners, Guastello said.

Accepting two entries would mean twice the work and two times as many deliverables within the same 10-month planning window.

During the earlier competition, it took about 18 months to bring the winning entry from finished concept to public unveiling.

“We did an awful lot more with an awful lot less. Ten months? That’s an unheard-of turnaround,” Guastello said.

As their Every Last Drop exhibit was unveiled, Olathe North juniors Mikaela Moore and Rachel Mickey admired one of its components: a silo that demonstrates water table depletion.

The silo puts the audience deep under the surface of the Earth at eye level with the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground water source that covers most of the central and upper Midwest, from northern Texas to the South Dakota-Nebraska border.

Press a button and a ring of lights indicates a healthy aquifer level. Press another button, and a different ring — much farther underground — shows the current water levels.

Both students said they have grown up with an awareness of water scarcity. For their project, they wanted to tie that awareness to the real world economic infrastructure. The distance between the rings demonstrates how humans — and the irrigation sprayers commonly seen on fields — affect a crucial component of the agricultural economy of the Great Plains.

“It not only relates to something that we immediately live in, but it’s everywhere in the Midwest,” Moore said.

The silo now at Science City is nearly identical to the team’s original vision. Moore said the Burns & McDonnell designers took the students’ ideas further, but kept them intact.

“The Olathe North team, I think, really latched onto this idea of there not being enough drinking water,” said Goss, of Burns & McDonnell.

He believes the project not only inspired the students to consider careers in science and technology but also to consider their own roles in solving problems of this scale.

Thematically, the exhibit walks a broad range from the Tapped Out Room with dynamic TV displays showing how water is used, to a vast, wet activity table with, among other curiosities, a fluid cyclone. All of it rests under a light display made up of water molecule models made of glass.

The water exhibit is the second winning entry from Olathe North. The school was the sole winner of the first Battle of the Brains competition, and its Science of Energy exhibit opened in the spring of 2013.

The school’s participation reflects its long tradition of public science education, said Amy Clement, an honors chemistry teacher who advised the team.

Clement, an Olathe North alumna, said the school has created an educational culture that promotes a broad understanding of scientific concepts and their practical application.

When students selected their topic this time, she said, water proved appealing because of its lasting relevance, a necessary feature for a museum installation that must outlast trends in science coverage.

Guastello credits Clement and fellow teacher Rhonda Reist for much of the school’s repeat success. Reist was part of an early focus group that developed a STEM education area for Union Station that eventually became Science City.

“To me, it’s pretty simple. It’s the two passionate educators at that school,” he said.

The Battle of the Brains has enabled Science City to build some of its new exhibits more quickly — and at less cost.

The most recent winners were recognized in November 2013. The concepts were finalized in March, and by the end of last year, the exhibits were in place and ready for the public.

“Pretty unheard of, that kind of turnaround time,” said Rosenblatt.

Typically, he said, Science City renovations can run up to $1,000 per square foot, but the student-driven exhibits came in around $250 per square foot.

Burns & McDonnell provided $1 million toward the two exhibits, the company said, plus in-kind donations for design and construction services.

According to Rosenblatt, Science City admissions account for around 40 percent of Union Station’s total ticket sales — including those for traveling exhibits and the movie theater.

And Science City has seen significant attendance growth in the time it has hosted the Battle of the Brains exhibits, Guastello said. Museum officials said attendance was up 13 percent last year compared to 2013.

Battle of the Brains evolved from an initial contact between the engineering firm and Union Station, resulting in the Engineerium exhibit, which opened in 2008. Then the two entities challenged each other to think ever more ambitiously.

“Greg (Graves) came to us and said, ‘I want a really big idea,’” which eventually produced Science on a Sphere at Science City and Battle of the Brains, Guastello said.

Asked if there would be a third Battle of the Brains contest, Guastello said there haven’t been any discussions yet.

“Let’s just say I’m hoping that Santa will be bringing something again next year,” he said.

The contest has spurred other donations, he said, noting that the station has nearly met its goal of raising $9 million to renovate the entrance of Science City.

The student-driven exhibits came to fruition as Union Station celebrated its centennial last year. Guastello said the Battle of the Brains is among his favorite projects.

“This is the crowning piece of our 100th anniversary,” Guastello said.