South City middle schoolers square off in science showdown

Middle schoolers huddled around tables on the Genentech campus Tuesday, trying to get a household salad spinner to act as a piece of medical equipment.

These amateur scientists furiously worked with their white salad bowls to perfect a homemade centrifuge in the final event of the Helix Cup Challenge.

The third-annual Helix Cup began in January, starting in the classroom and ending at Genentech’s South San Francisco campus, whittling down from every eighth-grader in the South San Francisco school district to 36 students at yesterday’s finale.

Kristin Campbell Reed, Genentech director of corporate and employee giving, said with a smile:

“All the middle schools in South San Francisco participated, every eighth grader started with two challenges in their class rooms, then the best teams from each class went to a semi final and then the top three teams from each school are here today. …  170 teams started, the top nine teams are here today, only one will take home the grand prize.”

As nine teams of students hailing from Alta Loma, Parkway Heights, and Westborough middle schools worked on their project, a voice in the distance yelled “five minutes.”

The Jedis, a group from Alta Loma in the thick of it, frantically packed their salad spinner with crumpled paper, rubber bands, zip ties, string — anything they could to make it stable.

Mia Carrara, 14, Nellie Gaoteote, 13, Alondra Esquivias, 13, and Aaliyah Aumavae, 13, tried to get a vial loaded with corn syrup and red and gold glitter to act like blood would in a centrifuge.

Carrara told SFBay:

“It’s fun because it’s hands on, and every group is in a fight to the finish. …  We want to beat Westborough.”

The announcer, barely audible over the yelling of the nine groups trying to finish their projects in time, yelled:

“Time’s up.”

The Jedis, along with groups with names like Bubble Guppies, Fabucorns, and Pink Flamingos, ended up taking center stage for a chance to bring home the grand prize: a suite at upcoming Giants game and, of course, bragging rights.

The Helix Cup is part of a larger Genentech science education program that for the past few years has been bringing science to South San Francisco schools.

Reed told SFBay:

“Problem solving, teamwork, curiosity and communication are the secret sauce of successful science. …  All of the values of how you do science are baked into the Helix Cup.”

Under the umbrella of Genentech science education program Futurelab, events like the Helix Cup Challenge thrive, along with Gene Academy, a weekly one-on-one mentoring program for elementary school kids; and the upcoming Science Garage, a biotech lab and classroom under construction at South San Francisco High School, for freshmen to get hands-on lab training in the lab expected to open later this year.

Reed said:

“It’s an $8 million building that we have constructed, with beautiful lab space and our scientists have consulted on what needs to go in there to actually do biotechnology.”

According to Reed, the total investment for Futurelab programs is around $18 million, all funded by Genentech as a combination of grants and donated employee time, along with the new Science Garage building.

As Alta Loma’s Jedis took the stage for the final challenge, the event announcer laid down the rules:

“Each group will be judged on how successfully separate their samples of gold glitter, red glitter suspended in corn syrup, mimicking the process of separating red blood cells from plasma. …  There will be three rounds in the spin-off of five minutes, three minutes, and two minutes.”

The first round began with the audience of Genentech employees, parents, and other guests — armed with cowbells, and other noisemakers — erupting in a chant from the left side of the stage:

“Lets go Jedis, Lets go Jedis.”

Round one finished, and the Jedis showed their vial had successfully separated.

After round two, Westborough’s WKBK 5.3 team were called to show if their vial had been fully separated by the salad spinner.

When it was all over, nine Genentech judges went to deliberate, leaving the groups in suspense and unsure if they had successfully completed the task.

Carrara said:

“I’m confident. …  You have to be confident.”

Deliberation continued,  and the judges picked the winning group: The WKBK 5.3 team Westborough.

Despite losing the Cup to a team from Westborough, the Jedis said they had fun. Max Delong, Jedis coach and Genentech senior engineer of global biologics, said:

“Even if we get one person into a career of science that can make all the difference. …  With the Jedis it was really fun, and as soon they associated something fun with science and the experiments, it really made a big difference.”