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Mariko Wesley-Fagundes’ special education students on Friday participated for the first time in a countywide science showcase.

In past years, the science fair was open only to students in grades 6 through 12, and typically special education classes wouldn’t take part.

This year, though, the Sonoma County Office of Education decided to expand on its usual science fair, instead holding a science, technology, engineering, art and math event called the Synopsys-Sonoma County STEAM Showcase, and students from all over the county were invited. It could become the new model for future years.

About 350 kids from more than 20 schools — elementary, middle and high school — participated, including the nine students in Wesley-Fagundes’ class who spent about a month creating their presentations, which taught them about pollination and how seeds travel and germinate.

“If we weren’t at this fair, we wouldn’t have done all of this,” Wesley-Fagundes said. “We would be doing reading, writing and arithmetic. They do have some exposure to science - we do a little bit in the class - and partner with another class. ... But this has been two science projects that are just theirs.”

The students attached “seeds” to Legos for a little bit of weight, then attached them to plastic parachutes, dropped them from up high and watched to see where they would land on a topographical map the class created. The idea was to get the colored seed into its color-coordinated area, which denoted a specific climate. When seeds land in the correct environment, students learned, the seed would take hold. If seeds don’t land in the right environment, though, they won’t.

“It’s made it hands-on for them,” Wesley-Fagundes said. “It’s made it involved. Each kid, whatever level they’re working on, they can access something about this. ... Being involved here has made them really engaged in science in a way they haven’t been before. I’m so excited about this.”

The event was held inside the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, with the lobby and various auditoriums set up to look like a science fair. Students’ projects were displayed and eager learners explained what they’d created to judges as they walked past. Results weren’t immediately available.

In the lobby, 7th-graders Hannah Dahlstedt and Isabella Reyes Cardona had just finished being judged. The two girls, both 13, created a game to help other students better understand how genes work, based on a Punnett square, the classic diagram that science teachers all over the country use to teach students about dominant and recessive genes.

Dahlstedt and Reyes Cardona thought they could one-up that classic lesson plan by using marbles.

The idea is that four people stand around a diagram with four squares and eight marbles. Big marbles represent dominant genes and small marbles represent recessive genes. You move the marbles around until it’s time to grab two. Whatever those two happen to be are the genes you’ve received.

“We were learning about genetics at the time, and we thought it was exciting and interesting. But the way our teacher taught it was by the book,” Dahlstedt said. “I felt like it would be a lot more fun and exciting to learn anything like this. It brings new opportunities to learning. You really don’t want to sit in class, take out your textbook and read. It’s a lot more fun to do something interactive.”

That’s when she and Reyes Cardona came up with the idea to turn it into a game.

“We’re hoping that (our teacher) is going to use it next year,” Reyes Cardona said.

Little did the girls know, that’s exactly their teacher’s plan.

Teacher Jessica Pengel plans to ask the girls back next year, as 8th-graders, to teach her 7th grade students the game when its time to learn about genetics.

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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