Mt. Pleasant Area students win at Westmoreland IU competition

| Wednesday, April 16, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Kristy Frohliger knew she had reason to believe.

It's why Frohliger, a fifth-grade social studies/science teacher at Ramsay Elementary School in Mt. Pleasant, hand-picked four students out of 63 to compete as a team recently in the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit's STEM Design Challenge.

The instructor's faith in Dakota Cook, Ethan Mates, Tyler Salvatore and Regan Shroyer paid off when the students earned first place in the competition held recently at the Fred M. Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at St. Vincent College in Unity.

“They are great students, they just go above and beyond, they just needed a little extra challenge in the classroom, so this is how I tried to enrich them,” Frohliger said.

The event — sponsored by the unit in partnership with the college's education department — tested participants' skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

It proved to be an academic apex for the four local children, Frohliger said.

Students rise above the rest

Numerous, four-member teams ranging from grades 4-8 competed at the event, which also included Burrell, Derry Area, Greensburg Salem, Hempfield Area, Kiski Area, Norwin and Penn-Trafford.

There were two divisions: grades 4-5 and grades 6-8.

“We beat 16 other fourth- and fifth-grade teams from other schools around the county,” Frohliger said. “Our kids have always worked hard, they're creative, they worked well together, and they're always thinking outside the box.”

That final virtue proved essential to success in the students' task of building an environmentally friendly model car, termed as a “people-mover” by competition officials, from up to 1,400 K'NEX model construction tools.

Just before Thanksgiving, Frohliger received information on the competition from Jackie Removcik, Westmoreland IU curriculum specialist.

When she pinpointed the students she saw fit to take part, Frohliger sent each of them home with a document for they and their parents to sign committing to see the project through to its completion, she said.

“None of them ever used K'NEX pieces,” Frohliger said. “They figured that out, and that was pretty much the entire month of December.”

To do so, the students sacrificed their daily indoor recess periods well into the new year, leading to the March 30 project deadline, she said.

“They worked so hard, every single day,” Frohliger said. “They would take something home if they felt were getting behind.”

Hard work is put to the test

Each team was required to create a vehicle that could travel at least four feet across a table and could overcome an obstacle chosen and designed by each squad, Removcik said.

“Our students also built a ramp out of plywood,” Frohliger said.

Students were then required to present project blueprints and to conduct a two-minute presentation before three judges which detailed how their vehicle was environmentally friendly, how many people could realistically fit in it at full-scale projection, the temerity of the obstacle and how the vehicle would overcome it, Removcik said.

The Ramsay team's motorized vehicle — a double decker bus model — ran on solar power.

The students reported to the judges that, if a full-scale version of the vehicle were constructed, it would be designed for use at zoos, and they each lent their imaginations to describing what such a conveyance would offer at that kind of facility.

“If a child or animal runs into the path, the automobile's blinkers will go off a yard away from the object, and it will automatically stop. We believe this safety mechanism is very helpful for zoo-goers,” Dakota explained.

Tyler added that the actual automobile would reach a speed of 30 miles per hour, but would be limited to 10 miles per hour when used in a zoo.

The up-scaled prototype would also contain air bags, Ethan said.

“The air bags have a special feature that will not hurt you when they pop out,” he explained.

Regan said the team encountered “many obstacles” during the building of the miniature vehicle, including disagreements, “drawing blanks” and moments that tested the team's endurance.

“The overall experience taught us many lessons,” she said.

Each team was judged on creativity, teamwork, challenge success, design and presentation, Removcik said.

“(The Ramsay team) did a fantastic job, and they certainly impressed the judges,” said Removcik, adding that those voting are professional practitioners in the competition's fields of focus.

“They included college professors who have earned their doctorates and engineers who do this kind of work every day ... not their peers or even their teachers,” she said.

District leaders exalt in victory

Timothy M. Gabauer, superintendent of the Mt. Pleasant Area School District, expressed pride in the Ramsay students' accomplishment.

“There were quite a few teams competing, so that's quite an achievement. This (competition) involved critical thinking, problem-solving and teamwork all wrapped up into a practical application, and that's just fantastic,” Gabauer said.

“We're trying to put kids in a situation where they can learn how to apply the skills they learn in the classroom, so this goes right along with that.”

Lance Benteler, principal at Ramsay and Rumbaugh elementary schools, agreed.

“We're very proud of them here at Ramsay; it just shows the character of students here and how hard-working they are. We're very excited,” Benteler said.

The top two teams in each division of the competition have been invited to compete May 2 with winning squads from districts in 18 other intermediate units statewide at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, Removcik said.

The Ramsay students will be there, Gabauer said.

“I had an opportunity to visit the students, and they're excited,” he said. “We told them we would do everything we could do to support what they're doing at the next level.”

A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or

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