Get Excited About Science! Awesome Science-Related Places to Go & Things to Do

By Sam and Alex G.
Fourth- and Sixth-Graders at St. Anne's-Belfield School

Have you ever wondered:

- Where pigeons go when they need an emergency room?
- How kids get to meet the President?
- What happens in a building so tall that it has its own weather?
- Whether a buttress can really fly?

You haven't? Well, to be honest, neither had we.

But we do think about science a lot, and last spring we wondered: How could we learn more about it? So we began to explore. And we found that there's a lot of science around Charlottesville. We also found the answers to those other questions.

So here's our report: Five Ways to Get Kids Excited About Science. Plus, some random stuff about pigeons, presidents, and flying buttresses that really fly.

Piedmont Regional Science Fair

The Piedmont Regional Science Fair gives kids a chance to do all sorts of experiments - from solar cooking to helping blind people "see" with sound. It's open to kids all over this area. We attended in March of 2003 and met students from Charlottesville to Massies Mill, from seventh grade up to seniors in high school.

When you enter the fair, you get a shot at dozens of awards. The top winners go on to the Virginia State Science & Engineering Fair. Or maybe even farther. Gary Henry, who organizes the Piedmont fair, met President Richard Nixon because he did so well at science fairs as a kid.

Mr. Henry first entered a fair at age 13. For his project, he built his own computer. That was amazing, because it was the late 1960s, and hardly anyone had even seen a computer outside of the movies.

Mr. Henry's first computer could just add and subtract. But in building it, he learned a lot about electronics. He also learned how to tell a story, because people at the science fair - including the judges - had lots of questions for him.

Mr. Henry also learned about money, because he needed $300 for parts. "That was not a small amount of money in those days," he said. But he convinced the local IBM office to donate it.

Mr. Henry won his first fair in the math category. He designed new computers for later fairs and kept winning.

IBM was impressed, and hired him for summer jobs when he was 14 and 15. Mr. Henry got to program computers and go on sales calls. The IBM salesmen liked to bring him along on calls, he said, because it made customers think: "If this youngster could operate the computer, then obviously their staff and faculty could handle it also."

But a job wasn't Mr. Henry's big prize from the science fairs. Not even close.

In 1969, President Nixon invited one student from each state, including Mr. Henry, to visit Cape Canaveral for the launch of Apollo 12. While there, students got to tour Apollo 13 while it was still in its assembly building. To make room for the Saturn rocket, that building was built so tall that "it had its own weather inside," Mr. Henry recalled.

As a science fair winner, Mr. Henry also went to conferences about nuclear energy and nuclear astrophysics. He learned how stars live and die. "We're all made of atoms that had to have been stardust at one time," he said.

He was also in newspapers and on TV, including the Today show.

All in all, "it changed my life to have that kind of exposure," Mr. Henry said.

Today, Mr. Henry is Chief Operating Officer of Dominion Digital, a technology and business consulting firm. He's been organizing science fairs in Charlottesville for the past 18 years.

This year, entries at the Piedmont fair ranged from agriculture to zoology. Caleb Saunders, an eighth-grader at Nelson County Middle School, grew a 297-pound pumpkin. To do this, he measured the pH of his soil, added nutrients, saved water, hand-pollinated flowers, and cut off the smaller pumpkins, leaving no more than two on a vine.

Next year, Caleb hopes to grow an even bigger pumpkin and win first place at the state fair. When he grows up, Caleb plans to become a farmer or work at his family's nursery, Saunders Brothers, Inc.

Rob McNish, a senior at Charlottesville High School, entered the science fair this year with a vision system for blind people. His system uses two cameras, which feed into a computer that translates images into three-dimensional sounds and sends these to earphones.

Rob invented this himself. He hopes to patent it and sell the rights, or maybe start a company to make his system. At the science fair, Rob won awards from the U.S. Army and the International Society for Optical Engineering, and he took second place in overall engineering.

Colonel Terry Schmaltz gave out awards for the Army. Today, Col. Schmaltz is Deputy Commander of the National Ground Intelligence Center. But when he was a kid, he competed in science fairs, too.

He liked airplanes, and experimented with wing shapes. He also tested how far he could drop an egg without breaking it. (We'd like to see our Mom let us do that!) He discovered that, if he put the egg inside a cabbage and padded it with foam, he could drop it 15 feet and - 3 times out of 5 - it wouldn't break. But he had to replace the cabbage. It smashed every time.

To get involved with the Piedmont Regional Science Fair students must first make the decision this fall to participate in their school's science fair where they can qualify to move on. Visit the web site for more details.

CA Robotics

CA Robotics is a club where kids build robots for tournaments. Middle- and high-school kids build "big 'bots'" for the FIRST Robotics Competition. Younger kids enter the FIRST Lego League, using Lego Mindstorms. You can find out more at their web site

Janice Pringle Parker, founder and director, said kids learn teamwork and cooperation in the club. "They form a little family."

They also have fun. In the FIRST Robotics challenge, they design robots that can pick things up, pull them around, stack them, drive a course, climb a slope, etc. This year, for 50 points, robots could even pull themselves up on a bar 10 feet off the ground.

By building robots to do that, kids at CA Robotics learn all sorts of things about engineering - pneumatics, gear work, drive trains, pulleys, electrical systems, computer programming, etc. And they learn it from experts. Engineers from GE Fanuc are mentors for the club.

Through U.S. FIRST, an organization that fosters science learning in young people, students can also win scholarships.

But "the best part," Ms. Parker said, "is watching them grow and develop and become leaders." One boy rarely spoke when he joined CA Robotics as a 10-year-old. But four years later, he gave a speech to a whole Mensa group - a club for smart people - about his experience with robots.

Leander McCormick Observatory

The Leander McCormick Observatory at the University of Virginia has a giant telescope that's more than 100 years old - and still works! You can visit it the first or third Friday of any month (except holidays) and take a look at the night sky. You can find out about other special events and even more stuff about stars at their web site

We went last March, and saw Saturn. It was all striped with clouds and had a gap in its rings called Cassini's Division, caused by one of its moons.

With our naked eye, we also saw the International Space Station. A bright dot in the sky, it flew by at 5 miles per second, 200 or 300 miles above the Earth, and took about two and a half minutes to cross our field of vision. Wow!

The observatory is pretty cool, in a 19th-century sort of way. It has a dome that revolves high overhead, so astronomers can move its window while they aim the 32.5-foot-long telescope. During our visit, while the dome was spinning, a father asked his daughter, "Should we get one of those for our house?" The little girl, sitting on his shoulders, said that would be awesome.

Also during our visit, Professor Craig Sarazin made a speech about galaxy clusters - blobs of thousands of galaxies with as much matter as a million billion suns, most of it gas reaching temperatures of 100 million degrees. (That's more hot gas, our Dad said, than you'd find even in Congress. Thanks, Dad.)

These clusters merge, Professor Sarazin said, in "the most explosive and energetic events in the universe since the Big Bang." They crash together at 10 million miles per hour. But even at that speed, mergers take 100 million years because the distances are so huge. (Any cracks now about the speed of Congress, Dad?)

Wildlife Center of Virginia

The Wildlife Center of Virginia is a world-renown animal hospital in Waynesboro, Virginia. The veterinarians there treat up to 3,000 animals a year - everything from hummingbirds to black bears. When we visited recently on a specially scheduled tour, they were stitching up a pigeon that had been caught and dropped by a hawk. It had puncture wounds, but the doctor said it was doing well.

The Wildlife Center visits lots and lots of schools each year and also runs The Bear Oak Environmental Education Center. If you're interested in visiting or getting more information visit their web site

The center has lots of equipment. It has microscopes with two sets of eye-pieces, for teaching. It has blood chemistry machines to test for poisons and nutrition. It has scales from the police department. (The police get them during drug busts.) It also has an operating room with a big window, again for teaching.

The Wildlife Center also has a big kitchen with food for its patients - everything from fruits and vegetables to rats and mice. The rats and mice are in a refrigerator, which no less than stinks!

Some animals live at the Wildlife Center, because they're too badly hurt or confused to survive in the wild. During our visit, we saw owls, eagles, hawks, and a vulture.

We met Gustavo, a barred owl. Gustavo can see, fly, and catch food, so you'd think he could take care of himself. But he was grabbed from his nest when he was two weeks old by people who wanted him for a pet. Just two weeks later, a policeman saw him and took him away. But it was already too late. Gustavo is "no longer sure if he's an owl or a human," said our guide, Emily Nelson. So he couldn't live on his own.

We also met Escher, a black vulture. Ms. Nelson called Escher "the joker of the bunch." He sticks his beak out through his cage to untie kids' shoes when they come too close.

While we were visiting Escher, Ms. Nelson told us about vultures. When a vulture is being chased by a coyote or a fox, she said, it throws up. That distracts its pursuer and makes the vulture lighter, so it can get away faster.

Pretty gross, huh? See why we like science?

Virginia Discovery Museum

The Virginia Discovery Museum is full of exhibits where you can take apart old computers, watch bees at work, or throw a beach ball into air currents. The museum also runs educational programs, like the Magic School Bus After-School Science Club for 4- to 7-year-olds. You can find out about special events in the Calendar and learn more about the Museum online at

We sat in on a Magic School Bus session recently, and watched gallery manager Peter Clark help kids build towers with paper and tape. Mr. Clark was really encouraging. "Let's get tall towers or strong towers or funny-looking towers," he said. When one girl folded her paper into a purse shape with a loop at the bottom that held a glue stick, Mr. Clark said: "A glue-stick hanger. What an invention!"

Christie Cho, age 6, built a tower that kept tipping over. But Mr. Clark gave her a hand. "In medieval architectural design," he explained, "they had something called a flying buttress. When they built a really tall wall, they were afraid it would collapse. So they built a structure out to the side. So maybe you could build something out to the side?"

Christie did. Then she made her tower blast off. So her buttress really did fly! It landed on her mother's head.

Josh and Dan Gardner built the tallest structure in the room. They telescoped four tubes of paper inside each other, and made a three-foot tower that could hold a golf ball. This fell, too, but the Gardners didn't think of using a buttress. Sammy Furr, age 5, built a swooping, rounded design. His mother, Caroline Ramaley, explained to Mr. Clark that her family had just read a book about Frank Gehry, an architect, and that Sammy's paper looked like Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, which is covered in titanium.

"I'm sorry we didn't have any titanium today," Mr. Clark apologized.

Ms. Ramaley forgave him. "Apparently, it was very expensive for the museum, too," she said. "Who knew?"

After the kids left, Mr. Clark said he loved running the Magic School Bus every Thursday afternoon. The program's subjects range from plants to animals to brains to electricity, and - all the hands-on experience helps the kids learn by doing.

"Every kid is born a scientist," Mr. Clark said. "Almost from the day you're born, you're experimenting with your environment."

Sam enjoys any kind of electronics. Two particular favorites: He's fixed an electronic bullhorn, and he's built a transmitter that can hijack his dad's car stereo - for the ultimate in back-seat driving. Sam is a sixth-grader at St. Anne's-Belfield School.

Alex likes space and the oceans. He's also figured out the real meaning of Newton's Third Law: "For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction." Alex figures that means he doesn't have to listen to his parents. When they tell him what to do, he has to do the reverse. It's the law. Alex is in the fourth grade at St. Anne's.

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