Taking it all in

MARSHALL – More than 1,100 inquisitive students had the opportunity to immerse themselves in a variety of hands-on activities related to science and nature at the 19th Annual Science and Nature Conference Wednesday at Southwest Minnesota State University.

Sponsored by Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative, the event featured 29 different topics for students in grades K-8 to chose from, including geocaching, ecosystem balance, stargazing, flight adventures, cryogenics, conservation exploration, crime scene investigation and Egyptian mysteries.

Dawson-Boyd brothers Brayden and Braxton Hahn teamed up with Yellow Medicine East student Cole Mathiowetz and Lakeview student Cole Arends during a session called the “Straw Building Challenge.” Using only straws, masking tape and paper clips, the students engaged in a friendly competition against other four-person teams as they tried to build the strongest structure they could.

“It was fun,” Mathiowetz said. “The whole thing was tough. At first we thought we’d make it like a triangle, and then we went to a box form.”

“Then we quit the box form and kept going,” Braxton Hahn said.

Brayden Hahn continued, reporting that the team kept adding support as it was building on to the straw structure.

“We started making a sand thing,” he said.

Mathiowetz said he and the team realized, in hindsight, that the structure needed supports at the bottom but not so much at the top.

“The purpose is for kids to come up with a design that can bear weight,” presenter Steve Harrison said. “The weight has to hang or be carried. So students learn how buildings hold together and that a triangle works better than a square. It’s a fun way to learn about structural engineering.”

As the clock ticked down the final few minutes of competition, Murray County Central’s Jacob Wendland tried to encourage his team.

“Let’s hurry,” he said.

When Harrison came around with the weights, MCC student Tyler Winter was nervous.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” he said.

For Mathiowetz, Arends and the Hahn brothers, the competition was somewhat of a success. Their structure held more than a kilogram of weight but eventually fell apart as more weight was added.

“It held all the weight except for one,” Brayden Hahn said. “I think it was a good idea.”

In another room, presenter Ashley Verdeck, a representative from the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls, S.D., taught students “All About Animals.”

“There are five groups of animals,” Verdeck said. “Fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles and mammals.”

Verdeck introduced two Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches to the students, noting that they have sticky pads for gripping and antennas for feeling around. She also pointed out that a cockroach could live for a week without a head.

“It feels pretty slimy,” Marshall Area Christian School student Ian Meulebroeck said. “I’ve never seen a cockroach before. I think some live in Arizona, too.”

Verdeck then brought out Aries, a 5-year-old Eastern Screech Owl, which is part of the zoo’s rehab program.

“A park ranger saw it had a bad wing and brought it to us,” she said. “He can never fly, so we can’t release him. Now he’s part of our education program.”

Students noted some of the characteristics of a bird, which included having feathers and wings in addition to coming from eggs.

“They also eat mice,” Westbrook-Walnut Grove second-grader Zach Knudson said.

To make a comparison between the screech owl, one of the smallest birds in the world, and one of the largest, the ostrich, Verdeck held Aries up next to an ostrich egg.

“It’s a dinosaur egg,” Meulebroeck said.

After Verdeck asked for the names of some reptiles, students replied: “snake, iguana, crocodile, tortoise, lizard, gecko and alligator.”

“A skink,” Knudson said.

Then, Verdeck brought out Rocky, an Eastern box turtle.

“You can tell by looking at their eyes whether they are a boy or a girl,” she said. “Boys have red eyes and girls have brown eyes.”

MACS student Abby Thoreson was one of the few students who thought that turtles could feel if someone touched their shell.

After learning that she couldn’t spray them, Luna, a two-striped skunk, ended up being a hit with the students.

“They loved her,” Verdeck said. “I’m a native of Marshall, too, so I love coming back here. It’s fun seeing the kids.”

In Nancy Dilley’s session, “Bison and Horse: How Early Humans Captured Them for Food and In Art,” students were presented with a variety of archaeological finds, including a biface, which is a two-sided stone tool made by chipping off flakes with another tool.

“It’s like our Swiss Army knife of today,” Dilley said. “It’s used for a lot of things.”

Dilley also showed students huge hammer stones, smaller hammer stones, antlers, a 12,000-year-old tooth and a variety of minerals used as pigments.

“I’m enjoying the session,” Lakeview sixth-grader Kamden Maag said.

Emma Kepler, a Marshall Middle School fifth-grader, said she enjoyed the keynote presenter, which was Lonnie Dupre, whose Arctic career spans 25 years. Dupre traveled more than 15,000 miles throughout the high Arctic and polar regions by dog team, ski and kayak.

“I thought his presentation was really cool,” said Kepler, who held on tightly to her newly-purchased book from Dupre called “Life on Ice.” “I begged my grandma to buy me the book. I’ve always been interested in nature as a kid. It’s fun.”