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STEM academy aims to make math, science fun

By Ameesha Felton (Quantico Sentry) | | June 15, 2012

Quantico middle school students huddled around a square wooden table, snapping photos and chanting: “Get some! Go! Awesome!”

No, these students weren’t watching an arm wrestling match or a hot dog–eating contest but a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) competition.

Joe Plaia, mechanical engineer at Naval Sea Systems Command, said the concepts of math and science can seem abstract in a classroom, leaving many students uninterested. But he hopes allowing students to see real–world applications of STEM will spark their interest.

The idea behind Quantico’s Summer STEM Academy is to get junior high school students excited about math and science, which Plaia said can be difficult.

“Middle school is the time when many students lose interest in math and science; it’s hard for this age group to see how this is useful,” he added.

The academy, which ran from June 11–15 and included 13 teachers and engineers along with 44 Quantico Middle/High School students, was sponsored by the National Defense Education Program, Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC), Naval Sea Systems Command, William and Mary University, and the Office of Naval Research. Most of the volunteer engineers were actually from MCSC.

On Friday, students built weight–bearing towers and throughout the week, engineered LEGO robots, water–propelled rockets, and attended demonstrations by the FBI and Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.

“This is like science and math on steroids,” said Norma Alman, sixth–grade math and science teacher at Quantico Middle/High School.

“It gives them tons of activities they can’t normally do in the classroom and encourages them to think like an engineer,” she added.

Students, in groups of four, constructed balsa wood towers. Their mission was to create the lightest tower that could support the most weight. Some used a lot of material, creating towers that were seemingly sturdy but buckled easily under pressure; others built towers without enough material that cracked with the slightest amount of pressure.

Mark Jones, an engineer at MCSC, said it’s not about weight but structure.

“You have to have the right reinforcement and cross–bracing is critical because it reinforces the tower,” said Jones.

Out of 12 groups, students with a cylindrical tower won the contest. The tower weighed 37 grams but could hold 209 kilograms of pressure. The students collaborated on the design, attributing their win to teamwork, as well as trial and error.

Niklas, a rising ninth–grader at Quantico/Middle High School, said he has always dreamed of becoming an engineer and this camp has opened his eyes.

“If you’re thinking of becoming an engineer this academy gives you a start,” said Niklas. “They show you what it’s like to be an engineer and how to prepare yourself.”

Jake Joseph, assistant director of STEM Education Alliance College of William and Mary, said working through inaccuracies is what makes a strong engineer, adding that the most common mistake is being afraid to make a mistake.

“Kids say, ‘we’ve got to be perfect in math to be an engineer,’ but engineering is about development. It’s striving for perfection, not perfection the first time around,” said Joseph.