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STEM summer program students get sweet lesson in science

(July 19, 2013) Incoming sixth graders at Berlin Intermediate School have been learning how to make a simple task hard.

That’s the point, though, as students in the summer STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program have been studying Rube Goldberg machines, named after the American cartoonist and inventor.

They showcased their inventions — marshmallow launchers riddled with inclined planes, levers and other expedients — Wednesday at the school.

“When you’re active, you learn,” said Sheri Ward, a fifth grade teacher at Berlin Intermediate and summer program leader.

“The next generation of science is steeped in STEM,” Ward said, explaining that the approach to teaching widens the classroom’s scope beyond a single subject. Students in the month-long “Invention Convention” program used science, literature and math as the foundation for their Rube Goldberg launchers, for example.

A lesson in perseverance, students had to problem-solve in teams to build their launchers, mimicking real-life situations they might experience in future careers.

“You’ve got to keep trying, because you won’t always get it the first time,” said student Jayden Johnstone after his team’s first launch.

“Teamwork makes everything perfect,” said student Alayiah Deshields.

The creators explained how their contraptions worked to a room of peers and adults, imbuing the Mouse Trap-style launchers with scientific meaning and phrases like “potential energy.”

Pupil-led lessons are a big part of school curricula and help increase understanding and boost public speaking skills, Ward said.

Projects like the Rube Goldberg marshmallow launchers also boost students’ confidence, said new Assistant Principal and Extended School Administrator Sharon Smith.

“The kid feels successful because he’s get a project that he created,” she said.

That held true even when the marshmallow launcher didn’t fire without a hitch. Long after the trials ended, students continued debugging their machines hoping for a successful run.

“I feel better about building stuff than I used to,” said aspiring engineer and student Sam Richowski said.

“I doubt I’ll ever forget it because it’s the first time I’ve done something like this,” Josselyne Maza said.

In all, Berlin Intermediate School hosted around 110 incoming fourth, fifth and sixth graders for programs this summer.

The Invention Connection camp will continue during the school year and is open to all students, Ward said.

Members of the Astro Bullet team watch as Ariel Alvarado starts their marshmallow launcher Wednesday during a STEM summer program at Berlin Intermediate School. The students spent a month learning about Rube Goldberg machines then made their own. (Clara Vaughn)

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