Franklin Regional sixth-graders pool resources for 'Ultimate Inquiry Days'

| Friday, June 21, 2013, 7:44 a.m.

Mixing 300 sixth-graders, the dwindling days of the school year and a large swimming pool might sound like a recipe for disaster.

But at Franklin Regional Middle School, it was an exercise in inquiry.

Dozens of sixth-graders splashed, paddled and — most importantly — planned their way across the pool earlier this month as the culmination of “Ultimate Inquiry Days,” a four-day exercise in critical thinking and hands-on learning. Students spent the final days of the school year planning and building a chariot, catapult, duct-tape bag or a boat that can float.

“They're having fun while learning” said Margie Ritson, one of several science teachers who organizes the activities. “We keep them engaged right to the bitter end of the school year.”

Students are split into teams of four to design an apparatus and compete in one of the four events. Parent volunteers assist with drilling, sawing and other technical skills, but aren't allowed to have input on project design, Ritson said.

There are all sorts of criteria for each event – those building a boat have to construct oars from scratch, while those building a chariot are penalized when their feet touch the ground. The process encourages critical thinking, Ritson said.

Principal Chris Kelly said the program also exposes students to STEM learning — science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and its real-life applications.

“It's hands-on and practical,” Kelly said. “All of those skills are pulled together in an entertaining way. It's really a perfect storm.”

One of the post popular parts of the program is the annual boat­ race — a middle school take on the famed “Anything that Floats” race from the Three Rivers Regatta. Students race across the pool on their creations, trying to stay afloat and out of the water. Kelly, Ritson and other science teachers took a spin on the winning boat before capsizing in mid-pool to raucous cheers.

“If they do sink, they sink with style and flair,” Ritson said. “Everyone is a winner.”

While the crowning jewel of the day is the boat race, it wasn't the only challenge that kept kids engaged. For instance, Nick Kelly and his friends built a patriotic chariot to race. Everything about the cart, which had to carry at least one student along the path without being pushed, was designed in red, white and blue — including its passengers.

Nick Kelly said he enjoyed working closely with his friends to build teamwork skills.

“It's definitely a lot more fun than taking tests,” Nick Kelly said. “Even better, it was hands-on learning.”

In another field, some thick PVC pipe, bungee cords and the head of a lacrosse stick got the job done for Anna Phillips and her teammates in the catapult contest.

“You learn a lot from this,” Phillips said. “It's a great experience and an awesome way to end the year.”

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400.

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