My first impression of Max DeKock is that the 17-year-old Bend Science Station student is probably pretty at home in a science lab. Gangly, flop of curly hair, oversized clothing. Check, check and check. Then he starts telling me about his rad science project involving time perception that recently won him first place in the Northwest Science Exposition and I realize he’s a great communicator. Then he starts cracking jokes like that he would probably be “freebasing in some dark alley” if not for the science center. And it hits me that this kid is totally awesome, and I’m the jerk who is expecting to find the Bend Science Station a musty lab filled with geeky students going through some kind of boring advanced science curriculum all in an effort to get an edge when applying to college. So wrong.
The Bend Science Station is like that teacher’s classroom from high school with the couches in it, where you could escape the feeling that you were just one of hundreds being pushed through institutional white concrete block hallways.
The science station is about kids dreaming up questions and designing tests to find the answer. And they do it in an environment where they are encouraged to be creative and funny. They aren’t treated like kids, so they don't act like kids.
They act like Max, a Summit High School senior whose time perception project is so cool and top notch that he gets to go to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburg in a couple of weeks where he will compete against 1,500 students from 65 countries for about $3 million in prizes.
“I’m pretty happy,” says Max, who is enrolled in Bend Science Station’s independent research program. “I think it’s mostly ‘cause I’ve stuck with it and I got this cool result. I mean international science fair—that’s pretty prestigious.”
The result he’s talking about is finding that people who worked on a difficult puzzle gauged time much better than people who got the answer to the puzzle first, then did it.
“One of my thoughts is that it could just be when you’re mentally involved in something, time seems to go faster,” says Max.
Max spent a month or so building the computerized puzzles using some pretty complicated code. Then he spent weeks testing about 30 adults that he recruited through his family and school connections.
“In school we learn facts about science,” says Max. “But doing this—I really like learning how to set up an experiment and carry it out.”
Just standard operating procedure at the station, where three other students developed projects that won awards at the Northwest science fair, too.
Every single fifth grade class in the area cycles through once a year thanks to the financial support of Bend Research Inc. On top of that, the station offers “pay to play” classes to hundreds of other kids from elementary ed students through high school seniors.
Founding teacher Dave Bermudez, or Bermi, as he is lovingly called by his students, wears worn out clogs, laughs a lot and has an outlook on science that’s informed by his background in sculpture and painting. Science is like art—creativity is required. And the whole science station, located in the old University of Oregon building off Trenton halfway up Awbrey Butte, exudes this energy.
Saltwater tanks bubble and computers hum. Boxes filled with copper wire, testing equipment and old science presentations are tucked under every surface.
While I’m talking to Bermi about all of this stuff, I put my arm down on the edge of a counter then do a double take. In a little Jello shot-like cup is something kind of fleshy gray with thin purple threads worming through it.
Before the words, “What’s that?” are past my lips, I realize I am looking at a lobe of brain. Totally gross. And excellent.
Bermi is very supportive of the curriculum students are learning in school, but at the science station, the goal is imagination and curiosity—the kind of thinking that is sparked by playing with actual sheep brains. And the success his students have had this year is proving his philosophy correct.
“If you don’t teach kids to think this way, then how in the world do you ever expect them to think this way?” he asks.