Students Tackle 'Kids' Science Challenge'

For three years, a national competition has challenged third through sixth grade students to come up with problems that can be solved via science, then matches winners with mentor scientists to tackle their questions. Peyton Robertson and Merrie Benjamin, incoming fourth-grade students, discuss their award-winning projects.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. You know that TV show about being smarter than a fifth-grader? I want to introduce you to two kids who are just entering the fourth grade this year who are going to give those fifth-graders a run for their smarts.

They are two winners of the Kids' Science Challenge. That's a competition put together by the creator of "The Pulse of the Planet" radio program, you know, veteran Jim Metzner.

But instead of a robot competition, like FIRST Robotics, this one challenges kids to, in the third to sixth grades, to think about a problem, a question, a need that science could solve. Then the winners get paired up with a science mentor, a scientist, to explore their idea and find the solution.

You can find out more about it or learn how to enter next year at kidssciencechallenge.com. And we have two of the winners with us here today. Merrie Benjamin will be entering the fourth grade at Pine Cobble School in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Her entry was the winner in the Sensational Sounds category of Kids' Science Challenge. Welcome to the program, Merrie.

MERRIE BENJAMIN: Hi, thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome, nice to have you. Peyton Robertson, incoming fourth-grader at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, his idea was the winner in the Super Stuff for Sports category. Welcome, Peyton.

PEYTON ROBERTSON: Thank you for inviting me.

FLATOW: You're very welcome. If you're a kid with an idea, and you'd like to talk with our kids, our number is 1-800-989-8255. Or you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Merrie, let me begin with you. Tell us about your project. What was that?

BENJAMIN: Well, I took - I took two spray bottles, or two or three or four or something like that - and I pretty much just sprayed water into a tin can, and the tin can had a tube attached to it, and it led back into the spray bottle so you would never run out of water.

FLATOW: And you were making a musical instrument?

BENJAMIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: By spraying the tin can and I guess changing the sound by - how? How did you change the different sounds the can would make?

BENJAMIN: We found different kinds of cans, and we also tuned them a little bit by putting pressure on them because you can tune tin cans. If you put pressure on them, they become higher. Also, if the tin cans have bigger ridges on the bottom, then they become - then they're higher, too.

FLATOW: All right, we have actually a little bit of music that you played for us on your tin can. Let's have a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: All right. That's "Ode To Joy," is it not?

BENJAMIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: I could recognize it. That's very good. Peyton, you had a different project. What was your project?

ROBERTSON: Well, I played - and I love golf. I play golf every weekend. And my idea was to create a ball warmer, which would warm - which would preserve the golf ball's temperature so it doesn't lose distance because from my experiments, I noticed that a golf ball doesn't fly as far when it's cold.

FLATOW: So you made a ball warmer, a golf-ball warmer. How does that work?

ROBERTSON: Well, we never actually made it, but here's what I thought it would look like. I thought it would be like a thermos technology, so it would be a vacuum flask, and there would be four or five different compartments. Each compartment would hold a ball, and we would - and you would - and it would keep the balls' temperature the same so in the cold parts of the country, the performance could still be consistent.

FLATOW: And what kind of research did you do in preparing for this?

ROBERTSON: Well, I cracked open several golf balls, and I...

FLATOW: That's not an easy thing to do, cracking golf balls.

ROBERTSON: Well, my parents helped me. I also Googled how golf balls were made. And I heated one. I heated 10 balls on - my parents heated 10 balls on the stove. I kept - we kept 10 at one temperature, and I put 10 in the freezer, and then we dropped - and then we dropped all three of them off the top of a ladder, and we measured how high they bounced, and the hot and the room temperature balls bounced significantly higher than the cold balls.

FLATOW: Wow, you did a real science experiment there. I mean, you collected data, you did the experiment of an idea, and it all worked out. Did you think - is there a product here you think you can market something that keeps golf balls a little higher to work well? And does it violate any golfing rules when you do that?

ROBERTSON: Well, when - like, heating it in like a microwave is not legal, but we're pretty sure that just keeping the temperature constant is legal.

FLATOW: And did you actually try to hit some golf balls or have them hit at all at a higher temperature? Did they go any further? Or could you discovery anything about them? You say you bounced them, and that was high enough, I guess.

ROBERTSON: Well, when we went - my reward for winning was to go to the University of Southern Mississippi, and I met Dr. Savin, and we made some golf balls out of a super-elastic polymer that would perform well at any temperature. And I got to hit those balls, and they definitely went further than regular balls.

FLATOW: All right, Titleist, watch out. Merrie, how did you get your idea to work on this?

BENJAMIN: It's kind of a funny story. I was really running out of time to come up with an idea. I had come up with ideas for both the other categories, but I had no idea for this one. It was proving to be very difficult to come up with an idea.

But I thought about what they had said about thinking about something that no one would really guess could be a musical instrument. And then I looked around my room, and the first thing I saw was a spray bottle, which I use to clean my guinea pig cage.

And then pretty much the idea just popped into my head, and I went downstairs, I said: Dad, I have an idea. I did a couple experiments, and that was - that was pretty much it.

FLATOW: It's interesting that you were not afraid to tell people about your idea, that you might be afraid they might laugh at you.

BENJAMIN: Not really. I didn't really tell - I finally told them about my idea, but I wasn't really allowed to tell them if I had won. So it was hard to explain everything.

FLATOW: Yeah. Do you think someone else will build your idea and market it?

BENJAMIN: I don't know, but my aunt is a musician, and she said that she might use it in one of her concerts. So that's pretty cool.

FLATOW: Did you have to experiment with different kinds of objects to find out which one made the best sound?

BENJAMIN: Yeah. We decided - I built two prototypes before I went to California, which is where I got to go because I won. And when I - before I went there, I built two prototypes. They didn't look very much like the final product, but - and I had to do a lot of experimenting with which sounds worked best until I decided that tin cans were what worked.

FLATOW: I have a question for both of you. Actually, it was one that I was going to ask but came in a tweet from BabyLou(ph), who says: What do you say to kids who think science is boring and useless? What do you say to them?

BENJAMIN: I didn't always love science. You've just got to experiment. You have to come up with fun activities that you can do yourself that you learn from and that are very entertaining. So pretty much after that, you just kind of love science.

FLATOW: Peyton, do you have an answer for that?

ROBERTSON: Well, I didn't - I think that you shouldn't think about it as science. You should think about it as how things work because if you think about it that way, then it becomes much more interesting.

FLATOW: Just don't call it science, just try to figure out how the world works.

ROBERTSON: Right.

FLATOW: Do you have a follow-up, or do you have any other idea you're working on now?

ROBERTSON: Not really, just - and I hope to make a prototype of my ball warmer, but besides that...

FLATOW: Yeah, some other idea, and what will hit you. And Merrie, do you have a - do you have any improvement that you can make or a follow-up?

BENJAMIN: I've been trying to think about that. I've been experimenting with the one that I built and trying to come up with ways to make it better. So it's kind of an interesting project. I'm, like, drawing pictures of ways that it could become more interesting.

Mine's - the one that I built is portable. We used Velcro to make it. But it's still pretty big. So I'm trying to come up with a way that maybe next time, it'll be more portable.

FLATOW: Let me ask you both: What do your friends say about what you're doing?

BENJAMIN: Well, I haven't talked to them in a while. I've been away for most of the summer. And I - but I was about to tell them before, right before school in this. But they seem pretty excited, interested. They put lots of - when I went to California, they put lots and lots of questions on my blog that they - the questions that they had that I could think about when I built it, and then maybe I could answer them.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank both of you for taking time with us, and good luck to you two. Merri Benjamin of Williamstown, Massachusetts; Peyton Robertson of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, two winners of the Kids' Science Challenge. You can find out more about that at kidssciencechallenge.com or go to our website. Good luck to you both, and thanks for coming on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ROBERTSON: Thanks.

BENJAMIN: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome, hope to see you on your next project.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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