Young brainiacs make top 20 in Burns and Mac contest

Fourth- and fifth-grade students and at John Paul II School in Overland Park took part in the Battle of the Brains contest. The students’ project focused on swarm intelligence. From left to right are team members: Greyson DeKeyser, Braxton Otto, Henry Morgan, Harper DeKeyser, Maggie Moloney, Peter Schulewitz and Sophia Hart. There were 14 team members in all.

by Moira Cullings

OVERLAND PARK — Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go inside an ant hill and watch the tiny creatures at work?

Or wondered why and how they even work together as a swarm?

Fourth- and fifth-grade students at John Paul II School in Overland Park have.

And their efforts to help others learn about swarms pushed them to the top 20 out of 820 teams in Burns and McDonnell’s Battle of the Brains. Winners were announced in November.

“It is a testament to all the great things happening here at John Paul II,” said principal Jennifer Yankovich.

“We have always known how special our school is,” she continued. “This just gave the rest of the community an opportunity to find out what we already knew.”

Battle of the Brains is a competition in which teams from elementary and high schools create an idea for an exhibit that — if selected — will be built inside Science City in Kansas City, Missouri.

The winning team gets to work alongside Burns and McDonnell employees to make the idea come to life.

Fourteen fourth- and fifth-grade students from John Paul II competed with an idea called “Power of the Swarm: From Nature to Robots.”

The students’ initial idea was to give people the opportunity to go inside an anthill and see how an ant community functions.

“Some other people from our group knew about swarm intelligence,” said fifth-grader Aryanna Rodriguez.

“They knew ants were involved with that,” she continued. “So we researched it and we thought it was a good topic to learn about.”

Ants behave as a swarm, explained Libby Lee, a science teacher at John Paul II and one of the team’s coaches.

The ants work together under a simple set of rules to accomplish tasks, she said, and the students realized that way of life applies to other animals as well.

“As they continued researching,” said Lee, “they learned that, since scientists have realized this, they’re now applying that to things like driverless cars and delivering packages in a more efficient way.”

“It’s also helped us to learn how our brain cells — each individual cell — works together to create the things we do with our brains,” said Lee. “It’s pretty amazing.”

The students took that idea and ran with it, meeting once a week for about two months leading up to the proposal deadline.

Their proposal included an exhibit model, essay and short video.

“I liked drawing the model because it was fun, and it was also challenging,” said fifth-grader A.J. Nies.

Rodriguez also enjoyed the artistic aspect of the competition.

“It was really fun because I got to go a bit more out of my comfort zone than usual,” she said.

“That’s one of the things I love about science,” said Lee. “This is where you take all of those skills you’ve learned — reading, writing, math — and you really apply them and integrate them.”

“There were a lot of different skills involved,” she added, “and it was great for them to pull those together.”

For fifth-grader Greyson DeKeyser, one of the highlights of the competition was having the freedom to choose what to create rather than receiving an assignment with strict guidelines.

Nies agreed.

“In a normal study, sometimes you don’t like what you’re studying,” he said. “But here, we all got to decide on what it was [we’d study].”

The buy-in of the group paid off.

“They really did work well as a team,” said Lee.

As a special treat, the students learned they made the top 20 at a surprise assembly held at the school Nov. 16.

When they heard the news, they were overjoyed.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said fourth-grader Bria Sutherlin. “I was so excited.”

“We beat 800 teams,” said Rodriguez. “I feel like that’s something I get to go off of and take into whatever I do.”

The students celebrated with the other teams that made the top 20 at an award ceremony at Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri, on Nov. 30.

Lee hopes this experience will get her students more excited about science.

“I hope a lot of kids will think about a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) career when they’re older,” she said.

Her hopes aren’t lost on the students at John Paul II, who have even higher hopes now for their own futures, thanks to this experience.

“This gives you a lot of self-confidence,” said DeKeyeser. “It’ll probably affect my studies for the rest of my life.”

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