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SCOTT SIMON, host:

What if tongue depressors could be made of candy? What if you made a skateboard that rolled on balls, not wheels? And if there really is life on other planets, how on Earth, if you please, could we communicate? More than 700 elementary school students came up with questions and ideas like these for the Kids Science Challenge - a nationwide competition funded by the National Science Foundation.

Our friend Jim Metzner created the competition, and joins us now. Jim, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JIM METZNER (Creator, National Science Foundation): Well, very glad to be back, Scott.

SIMON: We mentioned right at the top, of course, candy tongue depressors, but I mean, this was an actual idea that a youngster had, because, you know, getting a tongue depressor stuck down your throat is not pleasant.

Mr. METZNER: Exactly. That was from the Candy Doctors. They're a team from Virginia Beach, Virginia. They came up with this fabulous idea, and that's the whole point of the Kids Science Challenge, that kids indeed think out of the box. Who'd have ever thought of making a tongue depressor - a rather often depressing experience - turning into something fun and sweet and you can eat it when you're through?

SIMON: And the whole idea is to think outside the box, right, to get a fresh idea?

Mr. METZNER: Exactly. And the scientists have been so in tune with that. And the skateboard scientists even decided that they're going to make the prototypes of some of the finalists as well.

SIMON: You have a couple of students there, right, Jim?

Mr. METZNER: We do indeed.

SIMON: Clare Duwarski(ph). Clare is a third-grader at the Lycée Francais La Pérouse - pardon my French - in San Francisco. Thank you very much for being with us.

Ms. CLARE DUWARSKI (Student): Thank you.

SIMON: And Kamal Hamilton(ph) should be there. Kamal?

Mr. KAMAL HAMILTON (Student): Yes?

SIMON: Nice to talk to you.

Mr. HAMILTON: Nice to speak to you too.

SIMON: And you're in the sixth grade at the Central Harlem Montessori School?

Mr. HAMILTON: Yes, I am.

SIMON: Now, we are speaking with both of you at the famous SETI Institute. That's the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence in Mountain View, California. Any signals from extra-terrestrial intelligence today we should know about?

Mr. HAMILTON: No, not yet.

SIMON: Not yet, but you're alert, right?

Mr. HAMILTON: Yes.

SIMON: All right. You're wondering, if there is extra-terrestrial intelligence out there, how we communicate with them, right?

Mr. HAMILTON: Yes.

SIMON: And what's some of what you've been working on?

Mr. HAMILTON: I've been recording sounds around New York, Pennsylvania and California, and we'll compile them and put them on the Web site. And children from all around the world will do the same thing. They'll record their sounds, pictures, write their messages and send hem into the Web site.

SIMON: And how will people on Alpha Centauri get a hold of them? Guess they got to log into the Web site.

Mr. HAMILTON: Yep.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Can we hear some of what you've recorded?

Mr. HAMILTON: This is door squeaking…

(Soundbite of door squeaking)

Mr. HAMILTON: Human laughing…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMILTON: Bracelets…

(Soundbite of bracelets rattling)

Mr. HAMILTON: Clucking sound.

(Soundbite of clucking)

Mr. HAMILTON: This is an African store music.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Those are great sounds. I have to ask, what joke did you tell to get everyone to laugh?

Mr. HAMILTON: I didn't tell any joke. They just started laughing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And how have you been working with the scientists there?

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, just now we were recording sounds of crows and birds in planes, and I got to see the Golden Plate for the Golden Record on the Voyager I and II.

SIMON: Oh my gosh. Really?

Mr. HAMILTON: Yup.

SIMON: What have you learned from the scientists there? I mean do they think there's life out there?

Mr. HAMILTON: Yes. They expect a response in 20 to 30 years.

SIMON: Twenty to 30 years, you'll be around for that, won't you?

Mr. HAMILTON: Yes.

SIMON: You're sitting there with a scientist, aren't you?

Mr. HAMILTON: Yes.

SIMON: A man named Seth, who works at SETI.

Seth?

Dr. SETH SHOSTAK (Astronomer): Yes.

SIMON: We didn't get a last name for you.

Mr. SHOSTAK: Shostak.

SIMON: Okay, Seth Shostak. And then what do you do there at SETI?

Mr. SHOSTAK: Well, I'm the senior astronomer and I think that may be mostly a reference to my age.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOSTAK: But in fact I participate in the experiments, think a little bit about where we might find ET, and what it would mean to humanity, if you will, if we were to pick up a signal.

SIMON: What's it like to work with two youngsters like Claire and Kamau?

Mr. SHOSTAK: Well, of course it's extraordinarily refreshing because, you know, they're not already saddled with all the so-called conventional wisdom that science always has in great quantities. So they have ideas that would never have occurred to us. It's always good to have young people around. I think that that's almost a platitude.

SIMON: And Claire, you're there?

Ms. CLAIRE DWORSKY (Student): Yes, I am.

SIMON: What's your experiment?

Ms. DWORSKY: My experiment is comparing the runoff water off the grass fields and the turf fields.

SIMON: Runoff water between grass fields and turf fields.

Ms. DWORSKY: Yeah.

SIMON: Pardon my ignorance, what's the difference?

Ms. DWORSKY: Turf fields actually have little bits of crumb rubber. The turf is actually spongier and the grass is harder and it has gopher holes, and it's a lot of money because you have to use lots of fertilizers.

SIMON: Claire, I am so glad I asked you because I asked several people around here, and I could tell that they didn't know either and they were just coming up with stuff. You know what you're talking about.

Ms. DWORSKY: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So how did you conduct this experiment?

Ms. DWORSKY: Well, as a soccer player, I just play on two different fields and I looked down and I saw on the turf that it was actually, the water on the turf was actually really weird and murky. And I just collected 110 water samples from five turf fields and five grass fields.

SIMON: Ooh, and what'd you find out? The turf water is demonstrably yuckier?

Ms. DWORSKY: Yeah, it's murky. It's really murky.

SIMON: You're going to be presenting these findings to an official board, I gather.

Ms. DWORSKY: Yes, I think so. I'm only a third grader and I'm only eight years old, but I'm just going to say the real truth and see what they say.

SIMON: Oh, boy. McArthur Foundation, hope you're listening up. I want to thank both of you, and for that matter, Seth, also you too, and Jim Metzner.

Dr. METZNER: Thank you.

SIMON: And Kamau Hamilton, sixth grader...

Mr. HAMILTON: Thank you.

SIMON: ...from New York City, and Claire Dworsky...

Ms. DWORSKY: Thank you.

SIMON: ...a third grader from San Francisco. They are young scientists in the making and winners of the Kids Science Challenge.

Mr. HAMILTON: The "Stand By Me" introduction.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: "Stand By Me." Well, stand by. We've got Daniel Pinkwater coming up. And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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