Hovercrafts, catapults and hydroponics are just of a few of the projects that Antelope Ridge students have tackled since the school's annual Engineering Fair kicked off two years ago.
Teachers at the school wanted to create a showcase rooted in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) that took the concept of the traditional science fair to a 21st-century level. In lieu of general science projects that covered a broad range of topics, the Antelope Ridge event featured projects with precise data points and targeted questions.
"As opposed to having the kids come up with a science project, we're asking them to test something, to build something," said Brian Sachs, one of Antelope Ridge's fifth-grade teacher before the official kickoff of this year's fair held at the school on April 21. "We want them to come up with a single variable that they can test … Just like teachers, we want them to really reflect on their projects."
This year's fair saw participation from all fifth-graders, as well as two students from the fourth grade. Engineering projects on display explored the efficacy of wind turbines and water filtration systems; students posed questions about the habitability of waterborne homes and the future of solar heaters. Students competed for science kits and a free week at a science event to be held over the summer.
The entire event boasted the mood and celebration of a traditional science fair, but the stress on engineering was abundantly clear. For example, fifth-grader Brayden Roe engineered several different floating crafts to test the viability of possible waterborne homes. To address questions of overpopulation, Roe wanted to see just how feasible a floating house would be. He built structures out of styrofoam, aluminum and plastic and added weights to see how they fared in the water.
"I thought about humans overpopulating land and not living on the sea," Roe said. "What material would be the best for the structures on the water? What could hold the most weight?"
That initial question spurred research and experiments that spanned seven weeks. Before he headed into the Antelope Ridge gym to display his findings to his fellow students and guest judges, Roe seemed eager to detail the process. The presentation was just as engaging as the work itself, Roe said.
"I'm excited. It was a really fun experience doing all of this," Roe said. "It will be fun to spread the word to other people about what you've done, to have people around to talk to about the project."
According to Sachs, that kind of engagement is at the heart of the Engineering Fair. By stressing all of the STEM components of the projects and focusing on a single, definite variable set, students get a more focused idea of the engineering process.
That's not to say there haven't been familiar experiments since the fair launched two years ago. The traditional volcano experiment has been featured at the fair, Sachs said, but the student approached the project with a much more precise set of metrics in mind.
"How can we take that traditional concept of the volcano science project and measure something with it?" Sachs said. "The student's variable was the different powders she had added to the vinegar; we measured how much liquid was still left at the bottom."
Sachs hopes that shifting the focus toward tried-and-true engineering methods will inspire fifth-graders to continue their STEM studies in middle school and beyond.
"We might have the next brilliant scientist or engineer in this room right now who started with a project in their fifth-grade class," Sachs said. "That's what I'm looking for, for these kids to get excited and continue their ideas."