Engineer, students roll into STEM

March 1, 2017

It takes creativity, ingenuity and a lot of tape to put together a car with straws, mints and popsicle sticks. And that’s exactly what Bari Bucholz’s second- and third-grade classes did last week with the help of Brian Lenz, an engineer for the town of Jackson.

“They were really excited,” Bucholz said. “Some of them remembered it from last year.”

Licensed professional engineers worked with third-grade students all around Wyoming to open their eyes to the world of engineering. In Jackson engineers visited 10 classrooms between lessons at Colter Elementary School, Wilson Elementary School, Kelly Elementary School and Journeys School.

More than 100 engineers were matched with 180 third-grade classrooms statewide.

It’s the second year of Engineers Week, which is designed to get children involved in science, technology, engineering and math — known referred to in education as STEM — at a young age. Shannon Stanfill, executive director of the Wyoming Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors, said they nearly doubled the number of students reached this year compared with 2016.

Last year Lenz visited after-school programs at the Jackson Hole Children’s Museum. This year he headed to Journeys School.

“It’s semi-controlled chaos,” he said, laughing.

Lenz was comfortable in front of the pupils — most of whom bounced up and down with anticipation.

“Who knows an engineer?” he asked.

Many children raised their hands.

“We don’t just drive trains,” Lenz said. “We make roads, toys, sewer systems — you name it. Our goal in coming to the schools is to get you guys interested in engineering early on. Lots of you know you want to be a fireman or a doctor. But hopefully after all of this you’ll say, ‘I want to be an engineer when I grow up.’”

Some kids perked up. Many of them had their eyes on the materials laid out nicely in front of them. Once pairs were established to work on teamwork, it was go time.

Bucholz said the lesson involving creating cars and running them down ramps fit in with her curriculum, which covers topics like simple machines, wheels and axles.

“We’re learning about design right now, so it works really well with what we’re studying,” she said.

Her class eagerly shouted out the phases of the design cycle — investigate, plan, create, evaluate — as they brainstormed how they could make the cars go as far as possible.

Bucholz’s class got creative.

Noah Zeleznik, 9, had the idea of adding “popsicle wings” to the car he created with his partner, Ann-Dallas Confer, 9.

“I’ve done something like this before,” Noah said. “I did it without wings, and then I did it with wings, and it went faster.”

Ann-Dallas got busy adding details to the car that were both practical and added flair, like seats for coin-sized passengers.

“I just love decorating things,” she said.

Both said they were inspired by the movie “Back To The Future,” which features a flying car.

Across the classroom, Lyvi Ulmer, 8, and Addie Cunningham, 9, talked through their plan. Both were cutting lines in straws to allow them to be twisted and hold the mints in place as wheels.

“I really like inventing things, and I really like making things,” Lyvi said.

Addie was careful about how much tape was used and where.

“We shouldn’t tape it right there or it won’t move,” she suggested to Lyvi.

Both girls passed the time by talking about shared interests, like Harry Potter books and Star Wars movies.

The time allotted for creating the cars passed in a flash. Once all moving parts were firmly in place the students rushed over to a wooden ramp Lenz had set up. They took turns letting their cars go and shouting in excitement when some went farther than others.

Lenz said he liked seeing how the ingenuity changed from year to year.

“We did a similar project this time, but I’m seeing different ideas,” he said.

After determining that the cars could increase their distance by using more weight, students went back and added pennies to their cars for one final competition.

While it wasn’t clear whose car went the farthest, that isn’t what kids will remember about the day.

“When you learn like this, it sticks,” Bucholz said. “It’s all about the experience, which is something we promote a lot at Journeys School. It’s all about learning by doing, and we do a lot of that here.”