By Tierney Gallagher
Fifth grade students from across Pickens and Anderson counties gathered to compete in JetToy Challenges where they displayed STEM concepts they learned in the classroom. The district JetToy Challenge was held Feb. 19 at the Pickens Country Career and Technology Center, and the regional JetToy Challenge took place March 1 at Daniel High School.
Concepts behind the challenges
For the challenges, students worked in teams to make balloon-powered toy cars. Before competing, they built cars in their classes using different materials like wheels, balloons, cardboard and nozzles. They tested these models to collect and analyze data in order to understand the effect of nozzle size on the car's performance.
At the challenges, teams tested the cars on tracks in three different events measuring accuracy, distance and weighted abilities. Students aimed to meet certain performance criteria with the cars, such as getting them to travel far, carry weight or go fast. Some students also entered a design portion of the competition where they created a real-life toy to be marketed to children. By preparing for and participating in the challenges, students learned the core scientific concepts of jet propulsion, friction, air resistance and design.
Jennifer Gal, a 5th grader at Clemson Elementary, said she liked the competition because it helped her learn science in a fun way. "You get to work with other people and build something and test it," Gal said. "Every time it's a test to see whether it's good or bad. The surface you test the car on makes a lot of difference, and we had to adjust it because of this."
More than just a good time
While students enjoyed competing against each other, these challenges are more than just fun. They help students to learn core state education standards and other skills like problem solving, team building and communication. By learning how these cars work and testing them, students put key STEM concepts in action.
Leah Williams, a 5th grade teacher at West End Elementary, is in her second year participating in the challenges. Williams said when working with her students, she let them explore the project and figure it out on their own. Her students made their own decisions and modifications to the cars, and tested them over weeks of practice through competitions at school.
"The students like this event because it's fun and gives them something hands on," Williams said. "We can talk about concepts, but giving them a chance to see it happen helps them to understand better. They have to show you they know the concepts because of the application."
Meredith Cross, a 5th grade teacher at Clemson Elementary, also participated in the challenge last year and got to take a team of students to the International JetToy Competition in Detroit, Mich. She said that the challenges not only help students learn, but are also very rewarding for them. "It gives them a real world, hands on experience that is very different from sitting behind a desk," Cross said. "They get excited and engaged. Anytime you have competition it gets them a little more into it and they work a little bit harder."
Origins of the challenges
The idea for the JetToy Challenge was created by SAE International's A World In Motion program, a teacher-administered, industry volunteer-assisted program that brings STEM education to life for students in the classroom. The challenge was brought to local schools by a regional education consortium comprised of school districts in the region, Clemson University, Tri County Technical College and others. The consortium hopes that the challenges will help local elementary schools bring a career focus to hands on education.
Dr. Barbara Nesbitt, coordinator of Early Childhood, Elementary and Instructional Technology for the School District of Pickens County believes that the benefits of the challenges are two-fold. "Children take two things take out of project based learning," Nesbitt said. "They develop the skills set to be a part of a team and also learn the science behind the project. They get both hard and soft skills, and that's what our business community wants us to produce - kids that work."
Benefits of the challenges
NASA space shuttle astronaut Col. Patrick Forrester, adjunct professor for Clemson's College of Health, Education, and Human Development, believes the challenges facilitate students' learning of STEM concepts through application.
"It's a great way for students to learn to problem solve, design and work as team while actually having to do something," said Forrester. "They're learning math, science and engineering while working within a series of constraints and laws. They're learning and remembering as much as they would in the classroom, but this is not just another typical day at school."
Forrester said that students understand STEM concepts better through the challenges because they like learning this way. "This makes learning fun, and typically we do better at things we enjoy," he said. "The way we learn best as humans is to do projects and face challenges. We like to compete and there's just something about doing it this way."
Lowell Haynes, principal at Liberty Elementary, agrees that his students enjoy the competition aspect of the challenge and don't notice just how much they're learning. "It keeps them engaged and they don't even recognize they're learning. They're just having fun," he said.
Students' enthusiasm isn't the only aspect that shows how much students are learning. Math and science indicators for state standard tests have gone up for students who participated in the challenges.
According to Pat Bobbitt, science coach for Anderson School District One, test scores for math and science have improved and about 40 percent of students are at an exemplary level. "This is a testament that this type of instruction works," Bobbitt said. "It makes kids want to learn, and these concepts align perfectly with 5th grade science and math standards. They learn skills, teamwork and problem solving with these events. It's not just something the teacher does in the classroom; it's more pertinent because the kids have something to work for."
Clemson & community involvement
As a university, Clemson has always partnered with the community to enhance education, and helping local elementary schools is an important part of this. Both this year and last year, Clemson played a role in teacher training for the challenges and also took part in the district and regional events as part of its STEM initiative.
Dr. William Havice, associate dean for Academic Support Services and Undergraduate Studies, is excited about Clemson's involvement. He said the University wants to help teachers make an impact on students with age appropriate activities that deliver STEM content, since lots of change can take place at an elementary level.
"When you think of our future, we need talented people to go into math and science," Havice said. "If we have teachers engage students at the elementary level, maybe we'll have more young people decide to stay in school and take on challenges like this. School should be fun and this allows young people to be creative and come together to solve problems."
Forrester hopes that after having this experience, students will become interested in different STEM career opportunities and start their path. "We go to school to one day use the skills we learn in our profession," he said. "What they learn through the challenges can open up doors outside of the classroom."
Results from the challenges are as follows: Winners for the district design event were groups from Forest Acres Elementary and Central Elementary. First and second place winners for the district performance event were also from Forest Acres Elementary, and third place was a team from Six Mile Elementary. Winners for the regional design event were teams from Forest Acres Elementary and Mount Lebanon Elementary. First place for the regional performance event was a team from Starr Elementary, and second place was a team from Mount Lebanon Elementary. Both winning teams from the regional challenge will participate in the International Jet Toy Challenge in Detroit, Mich. in April.