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Stewart Elementary's engineering, science club draws girls' attention

| Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 11:30 a.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Members of GEMS race their balloon-powered cars at Stewart Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Kyrie Key cuts her sheet of balsa wood as she creates a balloon-powered car to compete with her fellow GEMS members at Stewart Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Jenna Stull helps Cara Capsambelis, right, as she creates a balloon-powered car to compete with her fellow GEMS members at Stewart Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Megan Mock reaches for colorful duct tape as she creates a balloon-powered car to compete with her fellow GEMS members at Stewart Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Members of GEMS race their balloon-powered cars at Stewart Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Makenna Locke watches as her balloon-powered car races against her fellow GEMS members' cars at Stewart Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014.

Discussion of wheel axles blended seamlessly with talk of Valentine's Day among the two dozen girls in Julie Hazlett's Stewart Elementary School classroom on Wednesday.

Fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Baxter-Blubaugh said that's the atmosphere they are trying to create with GEMS — Girls in Engineering, Math and Science.

The goal of the afterschool club is to expose Burrell's female fifth-graders to engineering skills in a setting that's comfortable for them.

“The boys, especially in math and science, tend to dominate the conversation,” said Hazlett, the club's sponsor and a math coach and gifted-students teacher at Stewart.

“They have to step it up in this setting,” Hazlett said. “You hope it carries over into the classroom.”

Each month the girls tackle a new, fun task: figuring out the most cost-effective way to ship the ingredients for s'mores; using the science of chromatography to tie-dye T-shirts; comparing their fingerprints; and using colored M&M's candies to work on their math skills.

Critical thinking steers cars

On Wednesday, the students each had to design and construct a balloon-propelled car using a slab of lightweight balsa wood, four wheels, axles made of drinking straws and brightly colored duct tape to hold it all together.

They had an hour to create their cars before they raced them in the school gym to see whose could go the farthest.

Megan Mock opted for a long car in hopes that the length would make the car run straighter. She added “wings” and rudders aimed at improving aerodynamics.

Cara Capsambelis said she needed to adjust the position of the plastic nozzle that secured the deflating balloon and directed the burst of air that pushed the car.

“I noticed the car kept going to the side, so I had to move the nozzle,” she said. “I think it's working.”

Amber Bigler said her strategy was to point the curved nozzle downward so the expelled air was closer to the ground.

“I also added wings so it could soar,” she said.

Not all the designs worked out — several vehicles ran out of steam only a few feet from the starting line while others veered sideways.

When students came to Hazlett with problems, she asked them to consider the cause of their problems rather than giving them an answer.

The students also try improvisation. When Amber struggled to cut the splintering balsa wood with scissors, Maddie Quinn assisted with her tae kwon do skills to break the wood.

Kyrie Key confessed her idea to completely wrap her car in duct tape had as much to do with aesthetics as it did performance.

Take a chance, learn

Hazlett and Stewart Principal Greg Egnor said taking chances and learning from failure are part of the lessons they want students to learn.

Egnor said the club's challenges encourage the use of 21st century skills he calls the “four Cs”: collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity.

“We're enabling kids to be responsible for their own learning,” he said.

He said the club is part of several efforts to boost STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — learning at the elementary level. Other initiatives have included introducing robotics into the curriculum and offering a Science Olympiad competition in the spring.

Hazlett said she plans to bring in women speakers who work in engineering, technology and other fields to serve as role models for the students.

After the race, Hazlett asked the girls to consider why some cars worked better than others.

They talked about how the length of the wooden base, the weight of additional duct tape and the uncertainty in how the balloon would shift as it deflated would affect the outcome.

Maddie said she wanted to take her car to her next science class.

“I definitely learned from it,” she said.

“We do fun things,” Amber said. “It's fun to be with my friends.”

“I like that it's all girls,” Cara added.

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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