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Sprucewood Fifth-Graders Win Engineering Contests

Jun 13, 2016 08:32AM ● Published by Julie Slama

Sprucewood Elementary fifth-graders place several hex nuts in a paper boat they made to determine how many it could hold before sinking. The school was one of the overall winners at the Elementary Engineering Week held March 1–3 at the University of Utah. — Karrie Wilbur

By Julie Slama / julie@mycityjournals.com


It was their first time competing and it was against several teams of sixth-graders, but that didn’t intimidate Sprucewood Elementary fifth-graders who took first place at the Elementary Engineering Week at the University of Utah.

 More than 900 fifth- and sixth-graders from 15 schools participated in one of the three days of competition, March 1–3, sponsored by the U’s College of Engineering. Each day, a school was named champion after competing in four different contests, said Amanda May, U of U College of Engineering diversity and retention coordinator.

 “This really is a great opportunity to open their eyes so they can learn what engineers do and how engineering touches their daily lives,” she said.

 One of the four contests included bringing a catapult that was already student made. At Sprucewood, students were divided into five-member groups, and after constructing a catapult in their group, they competed against each other. The top three catapults advanced to compete against others at the U. 

Fifth-grader Isabelle Leininger asked her dad, Alta High physics teacher Matt Leininger, for suggestions for their group’s catapult, which was one Sprucewood took to the U.

 “There were specifics with how it had to be built and shoot,” Isabelle said. “We designed it so that it would launch a marshmallow and hit it 12 feet away.”

 However, at the U, it turned out to be too strong so Isabelle’s group pulled the catapult back as far as they could. Still, it overshot the target, she said.

 “They wanted us to figure out how to solve problems and even though we didn’t win that contest, it was still fun,” she said.

 Her team did win the straw tower competition by constructing the tallest structure that could withstand a fan blowing on it.

 “It took imagination. We bent straws and put them inside each other to make it sturdier and used others that attached to the base so it wouldn’t fall. I thought we had a chance of winning since it was taller than me,” she said.

 In another rotation, fifth-grader Jennifer Butler’s team molded fish out of clay to pull through the water. There were two different contests: which fish could be fastest, and which would be slowest. Her group picked the slowest contest.

 “We studied other groups and saw what worked and what didn’t, then put several ideas of theirs and our own together to make it work,” she said. “We could test it and then change it up several times to see what worked best.”

 Her group didn’t win that contest, but they did win the strength of a paper boat competition. Each group was given a piece of cardstock and three feet of duct tape to construct a paper boat. Then the boats were placed in water and hex nuts were added. Jennifer’s group’s boat held 59 nuts.

 “We used the paper to make the boat into a nacho tray shape and covered it with duct tape. That way, the paper wouldn’t dissolve when it got wet. I was really surprised we won. I knew 59 was big, but still I wasn’t expecting we’d win,” she said.

 Winners in each rotation received certificates and small prizes. The overall winning school received a school certificate, which Sprucewood plans to display.

 Engineering Week was more than winning, Sprucewood teachers said.

“Our kids were curious and engaged the entire time in these STEM-inspired activities,” teacher Debbie McDonald said.

 Teacher Karrie Wilbur said that students were encouraged to think for themselves.

 “They could ask, but weren’t given answers,” she said. “Instead, they were asked probing questions and tools so they how to think through the scientific method.”

 All the teachers agreed teamwork was the key.

 “They learned collaboration and teamwork,” teacher Julie Simmons said. “When they communicated and trusted each other, they worked together and were successful.”

 Lori Jones said the experience was new to many students who had never been on a college campus.

 “The students learned what a college was like and able to talk to students and instructors there,” Jones said. “The day allowed all students an eye-opening experience in the engineering field.”

 Steffi Lietzke, president of the Society of Women Engineers at the U of U, helped with the event.

 “Elementary Engineering week gives students hands-on opportunities to explore engineering that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” she said. “Students not only learn about engineering principles, but are also exposed to a university and get to see how much fun engineering is.”   

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