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Students, engineers team for Straw Rocket Challenge (video)



CMSD fifth-graders had the opportunity to work side-by-side with professional engineers as they built "rockets" out of plastic drinking straws for a hands-on lesson in STEM and engineering design.


Through a grant from the Arconic Foundation and a partnership with SAE International, about 800 CMSD students participated in the two-week Straw Rocket Challenge STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education program.

District teachers and Arconic engineers helped students build, test and modify rockets made from drinking straws. By changing one variable at a time, including the rockets’ shape, size and components, the children used problem-solving skills to design rockets that meet specific goals.
The Arconic Foundation is an arm of the Arconic corporation that designs and builds processed metal parts primarily for the automotive and aerospace industries. The foundation supports STEM education and training with a special emphasis on creating access for underrepresented and underserved groups. SAE International is a professional association and standards developing organization for engineering professionals. SAE International created the "A World In Motion" curriculum, which helps students explore topics like Newton's Laws of Motion, gravity, thrust, lift and drag.


The top 150 students faced off in a series of culminating challenges last week at CMSD's East Professional Center. They previously competed in internal competitions at Riverside, Anton Grdina, Sunbeam, Dike, McKinley and Benjamin Franklin schools and Newton D. Baker School of the Arts.


First, the students broke into teams of four to assemble their rockets using plastic drinking straws, modeling clay, tape, string and other tools. Next, they adjusted their team’s rocket to their preferred specifications, based on the engineering lessons they learned in the past two weeks.


Then it was time for the two competitions: distance (flying the rocket at least five meters) and accuracy (landing the rocket within ½ meter of a target). Students blew on the straws to launch them toward the marked targets. The McKinley students won in both contests.


Matthew Brest, an engineering manager at Arconic, was there to help, along with about a dozen other engineers. Brest said working face-to-face with engineers is a unique and invaluable learning experience for students.


“For these students to be able to meet some engineers and learn about what we do is a really great thing,” he said. “Our volunteers use their engineering knowledge to put some perspective on the activities they’re doing and interact with students to talk about the kinds of things real engineers do.”


Arconic and SAE International have been bringing this STEM experience to CMSD for 10 years, Brest said. 


One teacher who worked with Arconic engineers during the two-week program said their expertise brought another dynamic to the students’ education.


“We do a lot of talk about the theoretical, so this was a great opportunity for the kids to do instead of just read,” said Riverside School teacher Anna Brier.


One of the engineers brought photos of real rockets to help students see how engineers use what the students are learning now in real-life situations, Brier said.


“It inspired them to be more creative and think outside the box,” she said.