Sonsoles de Lacalle of Charles Drew University holds up a sheep brain as… (Charles Lohman / Charles…)
The 200 judges at the biomedical science fair surveyed the exhibits, pursing their lips. They clutched their clipboards, rating the effectiveness of presentations on topics from DNA extraction to magnetic accelerators.
It was a tough crowd -- the judges were fourth-graders from Foster and Carver elementary schools in Compton, and the contestants were professors and researchers from Cal State L.A., Charles Drew and Loma Linda universities. The judges were chaperoned by juniors from the King/Drew Medical Magnet High School.
"It's basically 'man bites dog,' " said Deborah L. Colbern, director of the National Kids Judge! Partnership. "Scientist is critiqued by fourth-grader."
Colbern first came up with the twist on the traditional science fair in 1992 while teaching a neuroscience course at the University of Illinois. Colbern was trying to get her research students to "speak so people could actually understand." She found no better way than having her students explain complex concepts to younger students.
Students gasped as Sonsoles de Lacalle, chair of Charles Drew's biomedical sciences department, split sheep brains down the middle with a plastic knife. When she asked if anyone wanted to feel, almost every hand shot up.
"Your brain works tight," said Jaime Rodriguez, 9, waving a single blue-gloved hand, his other arm slung in a cast. "Some of the systems I don't know about. . . . I'm gonna learn more about it. It was so fun."
"Fourth-graders are very exciting kids -- they haven't grown up enough to reject you," said De Lacalle, who wrote the five-year, $1-million grant from the National Institutes of Health that funded the program.
The science fair, held at the Veterans Sports Complex in Carson, is now in its third year with Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science. The grant also provides for Charles Drew students to lead hands-on experiments on each of the grade schools' textbook units.
"We want to convince the powers that be that taking science away from elementary schools does no good," De Lacalle said. "Kids thrive in science, and my students learn how to communicate effectively from them."
Sarah Redondo, a teacher at Carver, said the fair provided a jumping-off point for science education. "It makes them so excited. Things are so abstract on TV, and getting to experience science and be in charge of judging makes it more real for them. It engages their multiple intelligences. Plus," she added, "it's fun."
Wayne Taylor, associate professor of biochemistry and chemistry at Charles Drew, was going for the win. His team had built a racetrack on a map of a giant mitochondria to have students reenact the creation of energy molecules. It ended when students hurled themselves into a jumper and down its inflatable slide.
Esmeralda Barajas, 9, tried out a double-sided mirror that was used to create a phantom limb sensation. "Your eyes send messages to your brain and it sends different messages to your mind and hand," she explained. "It feels weird, and kind of good."
The deviously simple experiment was the work of Maria Corona, a graduate student in psychology pursuing her PhD at Loma Linda University.
Corona, 28, immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was 15, the youngest of 11 children and the first to go to college. Corona struggled to learn English and planned to start work right after graduating from Eagle Rock High School. But during her senior year, a counselor encouraged her to sign up for a psychology course at Cal State L.A. Corona was hooked.
Corona said she wanted to inspire a love of the sciences in young students. "If they go to an inner-city school, like I did, science is not the focus of education. I want to make it approachable because minorities are a minority in science."
Three winners shared top honors -- among them the magnetic accelerators exhibit, which earned kudos as a first-time entry.