Fifth-Graders Build, Tinker, Design in STEM Immersion

School News NetworkBy: Erin Albanese – School News Network

The challenge was to build the tallest Eiffel Tower. After they twisted and tied pipe-cleaners, Endeavor and Meadowlawn fifth-graders’ structures stood straight and high.

Natasha Sirrine, a Grand Valley State University School of Engineering graduate student, was impressed. “I’ve never seen four really good ones, ever,” she said, eyeing the colorful towers. “These are fabulous.”

Fifth-grader Melanie Delvalle helped construct the winning tower. “I like engineering because you can build things, and I like creating new things,” she said.

Nearby, Amoria Taylor-Smith tinkered with the gears of a unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a drone, brought in by Kent ISD STEM consultant Ebiri Nkugbu. The youngster was amazed to learn what the aircraft can do, like take photos of crops up close.

“I want to be what he is,” said Amoria, pointing to Nkugbu. “I think it’s cool that he can build stuff.”

Natasha Sirrine, Grand Valley State University School of Engineering graduate student watches Melanie Delvalle construct a pipe-cleaner Eiffel Tower
Natasha Sirrine, Grand Valley State University School of Engineering graduate student watches Melanie Delvalle construct a pipe-cleaner Eiffel Tower

It was the final of four events hosted to expose Kentwood Public Schools fifth-graders from 10 elementary schools to the world of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. Through hands-on activities, students got to thinking about jobs in the field, which went way beyond looking through a microscope.

“It’s exciting to see and learn about stuff I never knew before,” said student Vedad Vila. “I kind of want to be a computer engineer.”

Led by Experts in the STEM Field

Endeavor and Meadowlawn students broke into 25-minute sessions hosted by representatives from GVSU, Kent ISD, Hope Network, Open Systems Technologies, Kent Career Tech Center, and architecture and engineering firms Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber, Inc. and Progressive AE.

Students spent the morning focused on “seeing, doing and learning,” to become exposed to jobs like scientist, arborist, nutritionist and architect, said Nancy McKenzie, Kentwood Public Schools STEM coordinator.  Last year, McKenzie organized girls-only STEM events because of the under-representation of females in STEM jobs, but this year they were open to all students.

Checking out an unmanned aerial vehicle
Checking out an unmanned aerial vehicle

“It’s planting a seed, giving them a glimpse into the career world, the STEM world,” she said. “Hopefully, during the rest of their years at Kentwood they will continue to hear more about STEM, attend more activities like this, take classes at the high school in engineering and CAD.”

Another goal is skill development. Group work, problem-solving and goal-setting skills translate into what students will need in adulthood.

Jobs of the future — many of which don’t even exist today — are likely to involve technology, said Jeremy Wise, managing consultant for Open Systems Technology, who taught basic programming concepts on cardboard. Students were challenged to teach their “robots” three ways to move on the board.

“Honestly, everything is software-driven, from programming to calculators, to cell phones,” Wise said. “I think the next generation needs to understand how they work and be able to tell them what to do.”

After building his own miniature wooden car during a session led by Joe Phillips, an instructor for KCTC’s Design Lab, student Joseph Amani let it zoom down a ramp to see how far it would go.

School News Network“It can go farther than any other car,” he said. “I think it’s awesome.”

Phillips said his goal was to help students learn design, and how it’s a process of trial and error.

After students tested their cars on the makeshift ramp in the auditorium, he challenged them to make their vehicles even better. That’s what engineers do, he explained.

“Now you can take it back, redesign and rethink how you want to do.”

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