Small Kids Solve Big Problems With Science

The Kids' Science Challenge gives elementary school students the chance to work with biologists and engineers on real scientific problems. Jim Metzner, executive producer of the Challenge, discusses how kids can get involved, from developing low-gravity sports to building hopping robots.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, the Kids' Science Challenge. Cool science projects for elementary school kids. All they have to do is dream up a problem that they want to solve with science. Kids get a little guidance on the categories. They've limited the categories and it's easy. You don't want to choose everything. They can choose from bio-inspired design, detective science or sports on Mars. Are you wondering how your kids can get involved? There is still plenty of time for them to enter.

And my next guest is here to talk about it. And I'm sure, he's a well-known voice to you, Jim Metzner, executive producer of the Kids' Science Challenge, is also "Pulse of the Planet" producer.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Jim.

Mr. JIM METZNER (Executive Producer, Kids' Science Challenge; Producer, Pulse of the Planet): Hi, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: Good to have you.

Mr. METZNER: It's a pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Tell us about the history of this contest.

Mr. METZNER: Well, we realized some years ago that we were reaching a lot of people on "Pulse of the Planet" - about 900,000 adults, 18 over - plus over, but not many kids. And our country - as your listeners are probably well aware of - is not doing so great in the education - in the science education department, certainly not in the younger grades. And so, we were trying to put together a program with the help of the National Science Foundation that will turn kids on to science, and just say that science is not only meaningful, it's interesting, it's fun.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so, what does it entail to enter the contest?

Mr. METZNER: Well, you've got to be a third to sixth grader…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. METZNER: …and you can enter individually or you can enter in a team. A lot of kids enter - are in after-school groups. We work with 4-H and Girl Scouts and other after-school groups. But it can be just a homeschooler, anyone can really enter. And you go to our Web site which is kidsciencechallenge.com, kidsciencechallenge.com. And you'll see there's a wealth of information there about the three subjects that you just mentioned. And you'll see - you'll learn what bio-inspired designs are, how there are many things in nature that we take that we take for granted. Velcro, for one, is a popular example that comes actually from an idea that was inspired by something in nature, in this case, a seed burr that got stuck to somebody's sock.

And you can come up with an idea for a sport on Mars, taking into account that Mars has very different conditions than Earth does. In particular, its air pressure is kind of low and the gravity is low. And so, the sport has to work on Mars. And then, come up with an idea for a mystery that you make up either a real life or a made-up mystery using the forensic techniques, the detective science techniques that you would learn on our site. And you'd learn about Mars on our site. You'd learn about all of these - what bio-inspired design means. You come up with an idea. You get your parents - parental permission is, of course, required. And you can enter online. And you can enter by faxing it or mailing it in. And you can - and then the first - one of the cool things is the first thousand kids who enter get a free - and the whole thing is free, by the way. I should've said that right off the bat. It's all free. And the first thousand kids who enter get a free, wonderful science activity kit as well.

FLATOW: Wow. That's a lot of free stuff going on there. Will kids get help with these ideas? Are they allowed to ask for help?

Mr. METZNER: Well, yeah. There are a couple of ways that they can. One way is they can actually ask the scientists themselves. We have a partner. They'll see the pathway to the partner right on our site. It's called Woogi World. And through their help, kids can actually ask questions of the scientists.

And the thing that kind of blew my mind in the - we're in the second year of the competition, Ira. We did it last year and we got a wonderful response. This year, with this new partner, we had - in one week, in less than a week, actually, we had a thousand kids asking questions to our scientists, which was a real surprise to us. We did not expect that many kids to be asking questions, which is - what a wonderful surprise, but we were scrambling a bit to get all the responses to that, I can assure you. So that's one way.

And the - and then they - the scientists do respond and so, you know, the questions run that gamut.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Well, what happens when they get chosen? If they get -their idea gets chosen?

Mr. METZNER: Well, that's the coolest thing about the Kids' Science - and we have prizes too.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. METZNER: I mean - but the coolest prize is that you get to collaborate with a scientist. You get an all-expense paid trip to collaborate with a scientist and see your idea become real. So last year, for example, we had a skateboard competition. A young lady who won, designed a skateboard, got to visit the skateboard engineers and actually got to make the skateboard that she had dreamed of.

FLATOW: Wow.

Mr. METZNER: And then they get prizes on top of that. We - for sports on Mars it's a trip to space camp. For the bioengineer designs, it's a behind-the-scenes trip to the San Diego Zoo. And for the detective science, it's a Pali Adventure Camp, a week at our adventure camp.

FLATOW: So these don't have to be really elaborate science fair, geeky sort of thing.

Mr. METZNER: Well, this is a competition for the kids who aren't in the fold, the not - you know, if you're a true blue science believer, by all means, we'd love to have you. But, for example, a lot of our winners last year were not the real science geeks per se. They just came up with a great idea. Lindsay Carnes, the young lady I was just mentioning about, not only wasn't a, quote, unquote, "science kid," but she had never been on a skateboard in her life. She just happened to come up with a terrific idea.

FLATOW: There was another one. There was another one I read about. It was about an interesting tongue depressor.

Mr. METZNER: Yeah. Last year, we had a flavor science category. And some kids that - they were a team and they called it - the teams all named themselves and they called themselves the Candy Doctors. They're from Virginia Beach, Virginia. And they come up with a fabulous idea to - when you go to the doctor, you - instead of having the wooden thing they stick in your mouth, why not have it be a candy-flavored tongue depressor? And they did. They got to go to, in this case, Cadbury chocolates. The scientist was the chief flavorist at Cadbury, and they made their prototype tongue depressor.

FLATOW: Wow. Sure, why throw out a wooden stick if you can go home with something to eat? Instead of a lollipop, you get a tongue depressor.

Mr. METZNER: That's what the Candy Doctors said, and they were right. And it was - sure. It's actually a fabulous idea.

And also to answer your question before as to what help, there's lots of downloadable activities. Even if you don't want to enter the competition, which is fine, you can learn about these things and you can do with great downloadable activities and lots of videos and games. And they're all instructive, so you'll learn viscerally what this subject is about. And then if you want to enter the competition, great. We'd love to have it. And then the kids can send in drawings, we put the drawings up in the gallery. And then the kids get to vote themselves even after the competition is over. We have kids' choice awards where the kids vote for what they think is the coolest idea.

FLATOW: And how long - how open - when does the competition - when the entry period end? How long do they have for that?

Mr. METZNER: Well, the kids have, from now - it started on October 1st and then we still have plenty of - people are entering for sure, but there's still plenty of kids left. Don't worry. And it goes until February 20th, the end of February, 2010, so you've got some time to think one up.

And you mentioned science fairs. We think it's a great opportunity for kids to not only come up with an idea for us, but then use that idea as a springboard for a science fair project and then we welcome the kids to send in their science fair projects and we'll put those pictures of their science fair projects up on our Web site too.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you, Jim, and good luck to all the kids out there who are listening. I hope you get, you know, 2,000 entries this week.

Mr. METZNER: Ira, thanks. It's kidssciencechallenge.com and we welcome to receive entries from your listeners.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Jim Metzner, executive producer of the Kids' Science Challenge and you know him from Pulse of the Planet.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: