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Sandymount students make wind for a good cause

FINKSBURG - Excitement was not the only thing crackling in the air when former television meteorologist Justin Berk visited the second graders of Sandymount Elementary School on May 21: Berk brought a Van de Graaff generator to illustrate the power of lightning and make the hair of one giggling second grade volunteer defy gravity.

Berk, who spent his television career as a weatherman for Baltimore area news stations, now specializes in giving talks about weather science that blend presentation and hair-tingling experiment.

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"I kind of adjust it a little bit according to the season and the weather and stuff," he said. "I try to cover some stuff they have already done in class, to make it real. I show some pictures and video and do some hands-on stuff ... It's really an effort to try and combine science, fun and learning - that's what I do."

The visit was arranged by second grade humanities teacher Lisa Martin, who had invited Berk for his first visit to the school last year. She said it was all her students could talk about that morning.

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"Starting last year we took a real cool approach to weather where we did it once a week all year long so they experience the seasons as they happen," she said. "A really cool thing for them is to make it into a real life connection, and after seeing what Justin does for a living, it makes it concrete for them."

Berk addressed lightning safety, the water cycle and brought student volunteers up to demonstrate the principles of heat conduction and temperature reading during his talk. The children were interested in everything, but were clearly the most excited about the wind speed contest that followed Berk's talk: Students would compete to generate the highest "winds" by blowing into an anemometer, the same device Berk used to measure the wind speed of storms when working in television.

The contest is part of the underlying reason for Berk's visit, a fundraising effort for Towson-based nonprofit Cool Kids Campaign, a charity that assists children who are battling cancer, according to Lauren Moyer, operations coordinator for the organization, who was at Sandymount to assist Berk.

"We have a learning center where kids with cancer can come and we have free programs. We have free tutoring for them, we have a mommy and me, which is preschool ... We even have a sibling group as well," Moyer said. "We do a lot of things, academic, emotional and social."

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Students participating in the wind speed contest raised money ahead of Berk's visit by obtaining pledges from friends and family, with all the money going toward the Cool Kids Campaign. Each participating student blew as hard as they could into the anemometer, which looks something like a remote control with a small fan in the middle, their breath spinning the blades to measure the speed.

The winner was Colin Stohrer, according to Martin, who reached 40 miles per hour, the equivalent of the winds in a tropical storm. The school raised $811 in total for the Cool Kids Campaign.

Berk had been giving talks about weather for school children for years, but became involved with the Cool Kids Campaign four years ago due to a personal connection: When he was 14 years old and an active track athlete, he was diagnosed with cancer in his left leg and told that it would have to be amputated.

Subsequent doctor visits revealed the original diagnosis to be wrong, Berk said, that it was actually a staph infection, but he still underwent surgery - a quarter-size hole was removed from his left tibia - and spent months recovering in the hospital and at home, a time he described as being very lonely and frightening. Working with the campaign gives him a chance to educate, fundraise for a cause and also show children that they can overcome obstacles to achieve their dreams.

"The Cool Kids connection is the fact that I could have and should have been a cool kid. I wish the cool kids were around then," Berk said. "And the fact that you could look at me today and you'd never know, hopefully those kids will one day be standing someplace and be able to say that they were sick when they were kids."

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