Bentley Siems has always been intrigued by science – many types of it, in fact.
Intrigued enough that his mother Carrie remembers the little dry ice bombs he would make as a 5-year-old, sometimes setting them off at the nearby Blue Springs Country Club.
When Bentley, now 13, got hooked on the video game Minecraft a few years ago, his parents turned that into a geological quest, gathering some rocks whenever they traveled somewhere.
“I still hate it,” Carrie said of Minecraft, with a bit of resignation. “I said 'You're going to stop digging up fake rocks, and we'll go dig up real ones.'”
He also has enough interest in marine biology to make it worthwhile to gain his basic scuba diving certification, following some of his parents' footsteps.
Bentley’s love of science will take him next month to Washington, D.C. The seventh grader at Delta Woods Middle School in the Blue Springs School District was selected earlier this month as one of the 30 finalists for the Broadcom MASTERS, a nationwide middle-school competition in what’s called STEM, short for science, technology, engineering and math.
Bentley was selected after taking first place in the intermediate microbiology division during a regional science fair at Union Station in the summer. From about 80,000 students in those fairs nationwide, the top 10 percent at each were invited to apply for the nationwide competition. From more than 2,500 who did apply, 300 were announced in early September, and then the top 30 – who receive a $500 cash award and, along with a parent/guardian, an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington. There, they will compete for more than $100,000 in awards.
He, Carrie and dad Jeff will be travel to Washington on Oct. 19, and the next day the finalists will meet with government officials at the Capitol and then showcase their projects at the National Geographic Society. Winners will be named Oct. 23 at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
Bentley's project, which he started two years ago as a fifth grade science project and then expanded, involves studying the effects of medical radiation exposure on the human bacteria ecosystem. He used a harmless strain of E.coli and treated the experimental group with different radioactive elements.
“Ever since I watched a documentary on Chernobyl, I’d been curious about effects of radiation with plants,” Bentley said. His current project evolved after talking with local scientists and professors and learning what materials might be more accessible.
“There's lots of categories. Some of the projects you see there are rather mind-blowing,” Carrie said of the fair at Union Station.
He actually had considered a project involving an aquatic invader, zebra mussels, inspired in part because his dad runs the day-to-day operations at Blue Springs Marina, the business co-founded nearly 60 years ago by Carrie's grandfather.
But Carrie and Jeff joked that because of understandably heavy regulations, it would be harder to gain access to zebra mussels than the necessary small amounts of radiation. He conducted his experiments at Heritage Middle School in Liberty, where his mentor for gifted science student teaches.
At Union Station, Bentley just had to set up his project board and judges simply observed. But in Washington he'll make presentations before judges and work some of the other finalists in a group competition.
“They'll NASA scientists and professors from some of the top universities,” Jeff said, “and they'll have the kids work on real-life issues.”
Jeff said the last day, Oct. 24, is scheduled to be a “special field trip” for the students – possibly even a White House event – but regardless of what it is, the family plans to stay a couple extra days in the nation's capital.
Of the 30 finalists, 16 are boys and 14 are girls, representing 14 different states. California has the most with nine. Carrie said she believes Bentley is the first representative from Missouri in six years. (This year is the eighth Broadcom MASTERS competition.)
Bentley can't make any changes to his project, so perhaps the biggest worry has been finding a new suit with his dad. He said he's excited to simply be visiting Washington for the first time, but he's also to meet so many peers with similar-level interest in science and have the chance to work with some of them.
“It's coming up fast,” he said.