Tonganoxie Middle School ‘Steps Right Up’ on monumental day
This year’s Burns & McDonnell Battle of the Brains ceremony was winding down Wednesday, Dec. 4, at Union Station.
Presenters had introduced all 20 finalists from among more than 250 Kansas City metro area middle and high school teams.
The fanfare was building up to the winning team as Tonganoxie Middle School students in the school’s talented and gifted class looked on.
First was fifth place and a $10,000 prize. Then came the fourth-place announcement and the $15,000 prize, third place and its $20,000 prize and then second place and with it a $25,000 prize.
Out of 840 proposals involving 7,250 students from 270 schools in 50 school districts, TMS’ seven-student team had done pretty well, it thought. No matter what, the 15 teams that didn’t place would receive $5,000 for their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) departments.
And then came the announcement of the winning proposal, complete with a recorded drumroll.
“Tonganoxie Step Right Up,” exclaimed Ray Kawolik, CEO for Burns & McDonnell.
The TMS squad members hopped up from their chairs at the Union Station Grand Plaza as streamers fell from above.
TMS instantly was the talk of its Leavenworth County community. The rest of the TMS student body — nearly 500 strong with faculty and staff — lined both sides of the street leading to the school’s front door and greeted the team when it returned Wednesday afternoon.
The students won $50,000 for their school’s STEM department and will work with Burns and McDonnell engineers to create their winning exhibit: A carnival-themed area called “Step Right Up” that will apply science, math and more to help visitors understand and master carnival games.
The Tonganoxie team consists of five sixth-graders and two seventh-graders.
TMS sixth-grader Caleb Hodges did a double-take when Kawolik announced his team’s proposal.
“I wasn’t sure that’s what they said,” Caleb said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Classmate and fellow team member Lauren Glynn said she had no idea Tonganoxie was going to be crowned the winner. When the TMS proposal hadn’t been named yet, Lauren said that she had “just accepted it” that her team didn’t nab one of the top prizes.
Battle of the Brains judges are STEM professionals from both Burns & McDonnell and Science City. They use various criteria to rank the finalists, from creativity and inspiration to how well the proposals could interact with and engage visitors.
Online users also determined 30 percent of the judging, as visitors to the Battle of the Brains website could cast a vote daily for their favorite proposal. Voting lasted for about a week in November.
The students were featured at Monday’s Tonganoxie school board meeting. Each student talked briefly about the experience.
Jameson Breitzman painted a picture of the underdog pulling through.
“When we got there in our small Tonganoxie van, we see three or four big yellow school buses,” Breitzman explained. “Teams twice our size. I think we all were kind of intimidated.
“They would be able to work on a lot more in the time they had.”
Other winning proposals were “Color and Light District” from Olathe East High School, second place; “Puzzling Patterns” from Wolf Springs Elementary School in the Blue Valley school district, third; “Welcome to DenCITY!” from Delta Woods Middle School in the Blue Springs (Mo.) school district, fourth place; and “Backyard Explorers,” Alexander Doniphan Elementary in the Liberty (Mo.) district, fifth place.
Other TMS team members are Lucy Graveman, Ella Pruitt, Wesley Johnson and Joshua Duvall.
TMS teacher Tracy Waldeier and paraprofessional Steve Bartlow assisted the students. When the Tonganoxie-inspired exhibit is completed, Science City visitors can explore STEM concepts through a milk jug game, Skee Ball, ring toss, dunk tank and basketball game, to name a few.
“For most people, carnivals are about games, rides and cotton candy,” Kowalik said. “The team from Tonganoxie Middle School went a step further and uncovered the physics behind all of the fun. That’s the magic of STEM: It’s part of everything around us.
“Our hope is these ‘a-ha’ moments will make kids more curious about STEM and, ultimately, STEM careers.”
As part of the proposal, the students put together a list of anticipated expenses.
Total estimated costs for the project was just more than $194,000, as students had to provide line-item expenses as part of their proposal.
The TMS students will work with engineers to create a $1 million exhibit at Science City.
Waldeier said Tonganoxie students would be meeting with Burns & McDonnell engineers before winter break to discuss the exhibit. She said students would meet every 4-6 weeks collaborating with the engineers.
The exhibit is expected to open around January 2021.
Asked about getting to work with engineers on the exhibit, Caleb said he’s eager to start.
“It sounds pretty amazing,” Caleb said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
Battle of the Brains has benefited nearly 20,000 students in 55 school districts, according to the competition’s website. It’s also open to public, private, parochial or home-based schools in 12 Missouri counties and nine Kansas counties in the KC metro area.