Whiz Kids

There is no such thing as luck. Instead, people’s dreams often come to fruition when opportunity meets preparedness, or so they say. Some may add that having smarts and ingenuity doesn’t hurt.

Such is the case for Olathe North High School students in the Distinguished Scholars Program, a 21st Century Program in the Olathe School District.

“The program is the only selective admissions program in the Olathe district,” says Rhonda Reist, co-teacher of the Distinguished Scholars Program.

In late August 2011, a team of 20 Distinguished Scholars students created Unplugged, an interactive science experiment that was the secondary school winner in the Science City and the Kansas City-based engineering firm Burns and McDonnell Battle of the Brains competition last November.

Experts from Science City and Burns and McDonnell evaluated more than 550 entries according to the competition’s criteria and narrowed the submissions to 20 finalists. The Olathe School District had three finalists. The judges’ ranking of the top 20 accounted for 70 percent of the final rankings, and the remaining 30 percent of the final rankings was determined by a public vote.

Each student on the winning Unplugged team had a specific role in the project.

“The kids have such varied backgrounds in the sciences,” says Reist. “This project allowed them to exercise their specific skills.”

Alex Farrell, one of the students who helped design Unplugged, is a senior who plans to major in chemical engineering following graduation. Farrell explains the project is a series of interactive displays that shows the different ways energy is generated and transferred.

“Energy isn’t going anywhere,” says Farrell. “We wanted to express a simple idea in a cool way.”

Unplugged earned Olathe North a $50,000 grand prize that will aid in the school’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

“Even though we have had a little time to let this sink in, it is still overwhelming,” says Reist. “We hope to use the money to keep the kids’ ideas going with more programs and opportunities.”

One exciting opportunity for these kids is the chance to meet and work with engineers from Burns and McDonnell, which will build the Unplugged exhibit at Science City.

“The chance to work with engineers provides a great learning opportunity for these kids,” says Reist. “Many of them want to go pursue engineering in college, so this is amazing for them.”

Upon completion, the Unplugged exhibit will allow Science City visitors to experience how energy powers the world through a number of interactive displays demonstrating how mechanical power is transformed into various forms of energy. While visitors are moving, watching and playing, they will simultaneously learn about the fundamentals of light and sound.


Community Partnership

Four years ago, a partnership formed that has brought brighter learning experiences to the Kansas City community.

When engineering firm Burns and McDonnell partnered with Science City, the idea was to bring a state-of-the-art science center to Kansas City.

“Compared with other cities, Kansas City needed to step it up,” says director of the Burns and McDonnell Foundation, Melissa Lavin-Hickey. “People were traveling to Chicago and St. Louis for experiences they could get right here.”

The goal to enhance experiences for Science City visitors with ingenious displays and entertaining exhibits was just the beginning.

“Burns and McDonnell wanted to do more than just grant money to increase the viability of the science center,” says Lavin-Hickey. “We wanted to go one important step further and involve the community.”

And so, Battle of the Brains was born. Designed for area students K-12, the innovative competition offered kids a priceless and unique opportunity to create something they would like to see at Science City.

Burns and McDonnell awarded $155,000 in grant money to area schools through the Battle of the Brains competition. Whether the competition will be recurring is still in discussion, but Lavin-Hickey says there will be continued projects involving the community.

“The most important thing is for kids to have top-notch opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math—or STEM—education,” she says.

The Burns and McDonnell Foundation is a key component of the firm’s longstanding commitment to improve the quality of life through educational outreach supporting careers in engineering and technology; human services; environmentally responsible practices; and support for the arts and cultural enrichment.