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Competition gives grade school students entryway into world of STEM

Competitors from David Crockett Middle School used the STEM challenge to build an orbiting communications satellite, complete with an inner power source and functioning sensors. | Drew Jones/The Cougar

Elementary and middle school students participated in a science and technology competition over the weekend at Student Center South as part of the 15th annual Mars Rover Celebration.

The competition is put on by the University STEM Center and is designed to get grade school students interested in the creative elements of engineering by allowing them to design and build their own rover prototypes that could one day travel to Mars. 

“Engineers, and those in the STEM field, are heroes of the real world,” said mechanical engineering senior David Smith. “(We) are the people who solve the problems to save the world.”   

Smith, along with physics senior Ryan Lopez, are both a part of the student branch of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. UH STEM majors volunteered for the event and demonstrated certain engineering challenges, like rocket launches.

Ryan Lopez (center-right) and David Smith (behind) along with other STEM Coogs in AIAA joined in to give a rocket-propelled demonstration. | Drew Jones/The Cougar

Lopez didn’t grow up with any interest in the STEM field. He was an athlete all through high school. It wasn’t until he had a great astronomy teacher his senior year that his path became more clear.

“We had to design, build and fly these rockets,” Lopez said. “(After) I built a few rockets I told myself, ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life.’”

Smith says he also wasn’t naturally inclined to the type of science-based education the STEM field offers, but cites figures likes Neil DeGrasse Tyson, renowned author Michio Kaku and fictional Avenger Tony Stark (Iron Man) as inspirations for pursuing his degree.

Lopez believes it’s important to capture students’ interest early in their childhoods and allow them to be curious while also expressing their creativity. Smith said that students being able to use all of their mental energy to solve complex problems is one of the first steps for them deciding to one day work at NASA.

Smith says he values the opportunity to volunteer for this event from an educational standpoint. Lopez says he wants to ensure that the next generation of students receives exposure in the STEM field for the progress of the country as a whole.

Hundreds of teens and children lined the carpet of the Houston Room and set up booths that held diagrams, specifications and explanations of their projects. Judges rotated around the room and evaluated the creativity, preparedness and knowledge students had readied themselves to present.

Riley (left), J.P. and Isabella from Sablatura’s Gifted & Talented Academy used their brain STEMs to design a Mars rover and an ‘out-of-this-world’ skit. | Drew Jones/The Cougar

Riley, J.P. and Isabella are sixth graders in Sablatura Middle School’s Gifted and Talented Academy. They designed and constructed an “indestructible” rover and acted out a skit in which Isabella plays an alien that is chased off by the vehicle.

Isabella says that the most challenging part was building the rover by hand and balancing all the parts. She says they used “a lot” of cardboard. The most fun they had was rehearsing their skit, and the team was resolute when asked if they thought they would win.

“Oh yeah,” Isabella said.

An emphasis of this year’s competition was opening a pathway for students in urban housing to establish a foundation in the STEM field. The Mars Rover is a convenient vehicle for students to be able to put together multiple aspects of a specifically science-based problem.

Sylvia Guilliam, a community health worker, helped elementary students this year build a structure that could support life on the red planet using household items. This is her first year being involved with the competition.

Guilliam says she’s excited to introduce her students to STEM-related problem solving because many of them aren’t exposed to it in their schools. She believes in order to find their talents or be successful, they have to get hands-on and gain a foundation of knowledge.

“If you don’t know better, you can’t do better,” Guilliam said.

She recognizes that there is a gap for low-income students to the resources they would need to become inspired and interested in STEM. Her role in stepping in to help what she calls “isolated and disadvantaged communities” is due to her love for working with children to help them implement and develop their ideas.

Guilliam says that she wants students to take pride in their work and be recognized for the efforts. She believes that her students will be accustomed to rational thinking, because not only do they have to know what they’re building, they have to explain it to others in a way that makes sense.

“They’re sharing the different results that they’ve found based on what they’re looking into,” Guilliam said. “It excites me, and I have a student(s) that tell me, ‘I’m proud of myself.’”

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