The Palm Beach Zoo and its 1,400 animals welcomed more than 650 special-needs students today as part of the fifth annual Very Special Science Fair.
The countywide event, started five years ago by Linda Laverty, a technology specialist in the Palm Beach County School District’s Exceptional Student Education Department, provides cognitively and physically disabled students with the opportunity to participate in a science fair as well as enjoy a full day at the zoo.
More than 1,100 students representing 35 district schools are expected to participate in the two-day event, which debuted in 2009 at Okeeheelee Park with 99 students participating. It moved to the Palm Beach Zoo the following year.
“This event demonstrates that even students with disabilities can be involved in science and get as much out of it as their non-handicapped peers,” Laverty said. “The domain of science has been very difficult for children with significant disabilities, but they can be involved in science experimentation and investigation.”
About 60 classes of students in grades kindergarten through 12 created science fair projects for the event. The projects, which will be displayed through Thursday at the zoo’s pavilion, cover a variety of topics including “Which popcorn kernel tastes the best?,” “Which bread will grow mold the quickest?,” and “Where does ice melt the fastest?”
Some classes have been working on their projects for several months, Laverty said.
“This is an educational experience,” she said. “The classes picked topics that were most meaningful to them.”
Each project received a ribbon, and students were given a “winner’s necklace” at the end of the day.
“They get so excited about the necklaces,” Laverty said. “Everybody’s a winner, because they all participated.”
Ann O’Brien, a Discovery Key Elementary School special education teacher, brought her class of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders to the Very Special Science Fair today.
For their project, her students tested a variety of liquids on tomato seeds to see which one helped the seeds grow faster. Water was the winner, beating out juice, soda and other liquids.
“The science fair gives them an opportunity to be around other students and learn about science,” she said of her students.
Students were transported to the zoo by charter buses and spent the day touring the 23-acre facility, watching animal shows and demonstrations, viewing science fair projects and enjoying a picnic lunch.
“Roving reporters” from the school district, some carrying augmentative communication devices, were on hand to share information with speech-impaired students.
“We love sharing the zoo with the students,” said Kristen Cytacki, the zoo’s director of education and sustainability. “It’s a great opportunity for them to connect with wildlife and meet animals up close.”