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All aboard the bus to Nerdville 

I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way and all that.

But that doesn't mean they ought to be trusted in a strange city by themselves.

"Ermehgerd, NO, you're NOT coming," shrieked my seventh grade son when I told him I'd volunteered to chaperone the Georgia Science & Engineering Fair in Athens last weekend. Sponsored by the University of Georgia, the highly regarded GSEF hosts the top middle and high school science fair projects from around the state, something like the Westminster dog show for young brainiacs.

My son and his constant comrade in academic crime, Luke, had advanced to the state level with their experiment on time perception, linking Einstein's theory of relativity with their obsession with Dr. Who.

Apparently they impressed the regional judges with their genius; I suspect they were looking for any excuse to turn a cardboard triptych into a TARDIS.

The Savannah Chatham County School System generously provides transportation and hotel rooms for its unaccompanied GSEF finalists every year, a fine option for mature high schoolers but an opportunity for disaster for 13-year olds who can take up to 10 minutes to put on one shoe.

"Ugh, you'll EMBARRASS me," groused Abraham. I told him that the bumpy four-and-a-half hour bus ride was a fabulous opportunity to test their theory that time either flies or crawls, depending on whether you've having fun.

It wasn't until we hit I-16 that I remembered that schoolbus seats are designed by a sadist clearly trying to drum up business for his chiropractor. And where the hell are the seatbelts? We make children ride around in our own cars strapped into five-point harnesses until they practically have armpit hair, but then we send them off to school to bounce around untethered in giant yellow tin cans. Shouldn't there be emergency instructions and a paper bag in the seat pocket?

Veteran SCCPSS driver Florence Praylow did her best to keep 'er steady in the winds as we lurched across Middle Georgia. I had my head between my knees, trying to keep down the bag of Fritos bought at a gas station somewhere between Statesboro and Metter that also had an impressive selection of hunting knives and pig knuckles for purchase.

My young charges entertained themselves by seeing how many pieces of Bubble Yum they could stuff into their mouths at one time. The high school kids sat in the back, ostensibly curing cancer and creating electricity from pears, or whatever real world wizards do for fun.

"DO NOT ask them what their projects are about," hissed my son, his mouth full of gum.

As if. I may forever confuse mitosis and meiosis, but asking questions is what I do. Plus, it distracted me from the reality that I was riding a careening school bus of death.

There was Nikhil Patel, a sophomore in the Jenkins High School Engineering program who built a robot to follow a six-meter duct tape maze in less than a minute. He told me that autonomous robotic technology will be in greater demand by the military in the future; this is truly the stuff that drones are made of.

Sitting across from him was Clay Cabrera, another Jenkins engineering whiz who tested different barrier shapes to see what most efficiently prevented beach erosion. Tybee Island would be wise to contact this young gent before the shore washes out to sea once again.

I was delighted to note that young women composed half the Nerd Bus (a term wholly embraced by all aboard.) Jenkins sophomore Paige Toraya built a turbine to determine what kind of blades will generate the most wind energy off the Georgia coast, contributing valuable data to one of the state's most promising economic paths.

Windsor Forest junior Elizabeth Kerr had made it to state with her agricultural study about the effects of the moon's phases on crop growth with the modest goal of figuring out how to feed the world.

These kids are finding solutions to the challenges happening right now, the result of a "major paradigm shift" in the way science is being taught, says Tavaris Brown, a SCCPSS professional learning coach involved with the new STEM (Science, Math, Engineering and Technology) Academy opening next fall, or as I shall admirably refer to it, the Nerd Factory.

"We've switched to a more inquiry-based approach to help students figure things out for themselves rather than rote memorization," said Brown. Great news for anyone who ever spent a whole semester trying to remember the Kreb's Cycle.

Brown added that while American students have fallen behind other countries' STEM scores in previous decades, new curricula are designed to help our kids compete in the global job market: "It's all about application."

Considering a 15 year-old from Maryland won the 2012 National Intel Science and Engineering Fair by inventing a strip that tests for pancreatic cancer more cheaply and accurately than the technology currently used by doctors, it seems that science fairs might be the "it" place to recruit the world's next problem solvers.

When we finally arrived at the Classic Center filled with the state's top 800 projects, there wasn't a baking soda-vinegar volcano in sight. Though one girl got there with some nonsense about comparing brands of waterproof masacara, most came from a more serious perspective.

I spent the next two days enjoying downtown Athens and taking in how stem cell research can treat stroke victims, why horse manure makes better biofuel and the role of pH in fern sex.

Rambam Day School seventh-grader Shani Locker won special honors for her study on the effects of high salinity on the hatching habits of brown shrimp native to Savannah's marshes — her findings ought to be considered in the context of the Savannah River deepening.

I'm proud to report that Luke and Abraham won third honors, a nod to the great strides happening in the behavioral sciences. Must've been some Whovians amongst the judges.

Here's the takeaway: The world runs on nerd power. The children are indeed the future, and investment in their scientific education is paying off.

Now if we could just get one of them to design a better schoolbus seat.

cs

About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Bio:
Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

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