Science fair celebrates inspiration, curiosity, imagination

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Does temperature affect how a levitating train travels on a magnetic track?

Does eating breakfast improve one's ability to do math?

Are girls more likely than boys to spot and pick up lost change?

The answers: yes, yes and yes (but more research is needed).

These were some of the questions posed by young researchers in Seattle Public Schools, who experienced the thrill of a districtwide middle-school science fair Thursday at the Museum of Flight. As a rite of passage, the science fair celebrates inspiration and gives kids a chance to build cool models, touch rodents and ask outrageous research questions.

Denny Middle School swept the awards this year (as evidenced by the gleeful screams of teenage girls): Its projects won in 10 categories, including best overall in seventh and eighth grades. Washington, McClure and Eckstein middle schools each received recognition in four to six categories, including McClure's best-overall win among sixth-grade entries. Some schools, such as Seahawks Academy and Madison Middle School, were participating for the first time in the districtwide fair, officials said.

The fair began in 1999 after a Mercer Island couple, Reynold and Julie Atlas, decided they wanted to give Seattle middle-schoolers the same opportunity their granddaughters had. They donated money for the fair to the Alliance for Education, the foundation that supports Seattle Public Schools, which honored their gift Thursday. Reynold Atlas, a retired Boeing engineer, died recently.

Districtwide science fairs aren't common among big-city schools: San Diego has one, but Portland and Los Angeles do not.

"If they're doing it within the entire school district, that's quite an accomplishment, because I would imagine there's an awful lot of students," said Sandy Dowden, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Science Fair, the nation's largest and oldest regional science fair.

Unbeknownst to the Seattle kids and proud families at Thursday's fair, benefactors on the museum's second floor were holding a fund-raiser to support the district's five science-resource teachers, all of whom were given layoff notices last month. Budget pressures also have meant that Seattle Public Schools — which has been a leader among urban districts in science-education reform — hasn't been able to adopt new chemistry, physics and math textbooks for juniors and seniors in about a decade, officials say.

This hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of the kids' teachers or the fair's judges, who are used to the uncertainty of funding. Brendan Vaughn, a University of Washington scientist who helped judge the seventh-grade entries and a product of public schools himself, gave the kids at the science fair a boost of confidence about their futures.

"Don't think that you're sold short because you're in the public schools," he said.

At Denny Middle School, where about two-thirds of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, teacher Sara Kinneen says the toughest step for students is learning how to frame a research question. Some students turn in projects that are more show-and-tell than experimental.

Not Zach Knutson, 12, whose project garnered an award Thursday. Knutson has long been fascinated by electricity. He likes to wear black, has the impassive demeanor of a scientist and rubs his hands absent-mindedly as he explains his project.

"Does water conduct electricity better with or without added substances?" Knutson asked.

Ocean Spray, take note: Knutson has discovered that cranberry/grape juice produced the most conductivity, better than distilled water, instant coffee or vinegar.

"Math is my favorite subject," Knutson said. "I'm more good at that. It has a lot of infinity and that kind of stuff. Pi and stuff."

Kinneen required her students to complete a science-fair project (half of their grade), which meant extra-long days for her in the week leading up to Denny's own science fair. Some middle schools don't have a full-year science curriculum and thus can't fit a science fair into their crammed schedules.

Since the late 1990s, the Seattle district has trained its teachers, first at the elementary grades and then in middle school, in "inquiry-based" science: Students do experiments with laboratory kits packaged at the district's materials-resource center instead of listening to a teacher lecture or relying mainly on textbook learning. The district spends about $400,000 annually on providing the kits, and nearly all teachers from kindergarten to 10th grade use them.

"The district is providing these materials so a kid who goes to any middle school will have access to quality science materials and instruction," said Kathryn Kelsey, who trains the district's middle-school science teachers. "There's a lot of equity built into this program the way it's set up."

Even though the district is barely balancing its budget, it will continue to support the science kits next year.

But its science-resource teachers like Kelsey could be unemployed in a few months.

The federal and private grants that sustained them the past five years are running out.

Five school districts — Seattle, Bellevue, Highline, Shoreline and Northshore — all must find new sources to pay for their science-resource teachers, who offer a 130-hour training course to schoolteachers.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or