April 5th, 2017 at 10:00 AM

Where Nature and Science Meet at the Farmhouse

Young Whiz Embraces Animals, Astronomy As Part of KC Science & Engineering Fair

Eleven-year-old Jamie O’Connell Case, accompanied by her Australian Shepherd Twixie, shows her treehouse. The treehouse was Jamie's first outpost for observing nature. Geese and heron fly by frequently. Jamie's favorite memory is seeing an owl.
Eleven-year-old Jamie O’Connell Case, accompanied by her Australian Shepherd Twixie, shows her treehouse. The treehouse was Jamie's first outpost for observing nature. Geese and heron fly by frequently. Jamie's favorite memory is seeing an owl.

Eleven-year-old Jamie O’Connell Case hangs out with her classmates like any other schoolgirl, but her farm time is special, when she holds her baby goats, weaves fleece, and studies the heavens, along with many things below.

Nestled along rolling hills just east of Interstate 49, at the outskirts of Kansas City, Missouri, is her family’s maize-colored, two-story home with the distinctive “farmhouse” façade and twin chimney gables.

A huge, friendly Great Pyrenees guard dog lumbers along the gravel path. At the driveway, struts “the tiniest runt rooster ever” and stray “chickens who have forgotten how to sit on eggs.”

Jamie laughs at the story of her first chicken — the neighbor’s rooster that wouldn’t leave after falling in love with her tricycle. She also treasures the memory when, as a 6-year-old, she and her father were exploring the thicket beyond the farmhouse and found a nest of baby raccoons.

Jamie will join hundreds of other students as they compete in the 66th Greater KC Science & Engineering Fair, a three-day event that begins today at Union Station. She attends a private school, but competes independently as a “home-school” entrant.

Her varied interests, along with her accomplished siblings and rustic home life, make Jamie one of the more unique participants in this battle of the brainiacs. Jamie’s experience also reminds us — as we live in an increasingly urbanized society — of the powerful rural connection between nature and science.

In her first science fair competition, last year, she beat out all entrants in grades four through six in the astronomy category. The project involved taking measurements of the shadows cast by the moon’s Herschel crater to determine the crater’s circumference.

This year’s entry builds upon memory studies using planaria. The planaria are flatworms that possess cells that are very similar to certain human cells and tissues. Planaria’s ability to regenerate has been a constant source of scientific study and experimentation.

Photos by Serena S.Y. Hsu

Jamie and her two siblings are competing in the 2017 Greater KC Science & Engineering Fair. Kayte, 13, is studying bacterial resistance to antibiotics from organically grown food. Jamie, 11, will submit her planaria. She holds up Bitey, one of her two parakeets. Paul, 16, has a project that involves computerized brain imagery of Alzheimer's patients.

Jamie pipettes up the smallest of the planaria still remaining in the glass bowl.

Jamie presents her favorite animal shot taken from her cameras for her two-year wildlife predation study. Pictured is a coyote carrying off a vole during a nocturnal hunt.

Mission accomplished for a young aspiring animal behavioral scientist! Feeding a temperamental goat with very large horns....

Jamie holds one of her chickens, Peeko.

Paul is in charge of carrying the heavy sacks of feed, while Jamie measures each daily ration at the barn.

Pictured is the side of the carder machine where the wool is being fed. Jamie explains, "The carder separates the curls, which makes it into soft fleece." Behind Jamie are the washer and dryer where the wool must be cleaned before being dyed.

Last year Jamie had an astronomy party for her 2016 birthday, where friends could view the same planets and stars that she and her father gaze upon.

Kayte jumps Ocean, the horse she also helped birth when she was just 6 years old. Kayte plans to be a medical doctor.

Jamie is also in the midst of a two-year project studying the behavioral patterns between coyotes and their prey, which she monitors through motion-detecting cameras. The cameras capture images of baby deer, which Jamie loves, but her her favorite part is the coyotes hunting.

“It’s mysterious,” she said,

Jamie also hopes to study wolves at some point.

“Coyotes are so solitary and usually only one pup can survive,” she explained. “[In the wild] with most animals, only a mother will really like their [own] babies, but the whole wolf pack adores the pups.”

You might say that science runs in the family for Jamie and her two siblings, Paul, 16, and Kayte, 13, who are the products of a mechanical-engineer mother, Patricia O’Connell, and a father, James Case, who has a doctorate in medical physics.

The siblings raise goats on the farm, giving yarn-making and fleece demos for students through a program they call “Farms to Fiber Art.”

“You cannot forget details and routines with animals and lab procedures, (and) you have to commit to (them),” Paul said, who along with Kayte, has also won science awards. Paul also specializes in the study of robotics and computer programming.

Paul handles the goat shearing and Kayte coordinates the yarn spinning.

Meanwhile, Jamie also has an extracurricular activity as the “farmhouse engineer,” something she noted while picking up the wrench used to fix the small horse trailer that is in perpetual need of repair.

Jamie has fixed tractor rivets and the dishwasher. “And when the dryer machine’s drum broke,” she added, “I fixed that too.”

—Serena S.Y. Hsu is a wire photojournalist and writer who lives in Kansas City.


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