Third-grader wins science grand prize
There are few confines in the mind of Merrie Benjamin, 9, a third-grade student at Pine Cobble School in Williamstown.
She loves skiing and basketball, going to school, hanging out with her friends, and everything about elephants.
"I never really liked science," she said.
But when her father, Blair Benjamin, told her about the Kids' Science Challenge, a national competition for students in Grades 3 through 6 sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Merrie said, "I thought, ‘This might be fun," and entered back in November.
Last month, the girl was told she was a finalist in the contest, which garnered more than 1,300 entries nationally.
"I was excited but also nervous because it was April Fools' Day," she said.
But her efforts were no joke. This month, Merrie Benjamin was named a grand prize winner in one of the three contest categories. Not only did she earn recognition and a slew of science-based prizes, but she was flown out to California to work with a science and music professional to bring her project to life.
Now in its third year, the contest is organized by Jim Metzner Productions. Metzner is best known for producing the public radio broadcast "Pulse of the Planet," which has been on air for more than 20 years.
"Life is short and this [contest] is something that I'll be glad to have done, because of kids like Merrie. I think we've touched the lives of many different kinds of kids, especially those who never thought that science was for them," Metzner said.
Each year students are asked prompted to address scientific issues in three different categories. This year's prompts were to: Propose a way to improve a sport using materials science; propose a new kind of musical instrument; and propose a new way that microorganisms can help the world we live in.
Merrie Benjamin responded: Create a better ski using an abrasive fiber like bamboo to create more traction on icy surfaces; use spritzing water bottles to spray liquid into different kinds of cups, creating a unique vibration and sound with each pump; and cultivate a kind of microbe to help speed the decomposition of leaves and reduce the amount of raking for homeowners.
Ultimately, the girl's idea in the "Sensational Sounds" category won judges over.
The other week, Benjamin and her dad flew out to Point Reyes Station, Calif. so the student could work with instrument designer Bart Hopkin to create a polished prototype of her project.
They did just that, and Hopkin was even able to play Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" on the new instrument, dubbed the Spritzer Wizard.
"It was great fun. Merrie's a great kid, sharp as a whip," Hopkin told The Eagle by phone on Wednesday.
"Musical instruments make great pedagogy because they're good in the science classroom, the math classroom, the music classroom and teach the principals of physics. This kinds of hands on stuff makes for memorable learning," he said.
Benjamin agreed, saying she now hopes to one day become a scientist, "and a teacher, and a writer, and maybe a zookeeper."
She said that even though the contest is over, she's still interested in experimenting in science.
"Kids who aren't interested in science may be interested in doing experiments. The key is research. Don't mix the wrong chemicals and make your house explode and don't set fire to your living room," Benjamin advised.
Her mother, Ali Benjamin said that though her daughter did make a mess of their bathroom designing the water spritzer instrument, it was worth it.
"I think it's great that it got the kids thinking about questions, which is really where science is at its best," the mother said.
"Our goal," said Metzner, "is unabashedly to get funding to keep this going. We want to be able to show kids that we take you seriously enough to empower you to come up with the ideas and help you create them."
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