SILER CITY — Three pieces of paper to build the tallest tower possible. That task perplexes Abby, a Silk Hope 4th-grader, for a moment.
But she gets to work.
Her first attempt is too top-heavy and falls over.
Her next attempt is shorter than her peers, and she isn’t settling for second best. After a few minutes of designing the tower in her mind, she decides to start cutting the paper into strips, rolling them up and taping them on top of each other.
When her final design is complete — an entire roll of tape later — Abby had the highest tower in the group, at 67.5 inches. While it may not be the prettiest tower, the pride on her face from her accomplishment lights up the room.
The tower activity is part of an initiative from Communities In Schools (CIS) of Chatham County and Innovate Chatham to teach students of all ages the value of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and engineering in the modern world. Last Saturday’s session marked the first week of the six-week program. A dozen students ranging from 4th to 9th grade participated in what is now the third go-around of the STEM activities at The Alliance NC in downtown Siler City.
“I want these kids to think about engineering as an option,” said Burney Waring, president of Innovate Chatham, a nonprofit aimed at improving accessibility to technology for Chatham residents. “I want them to figure out what works, what doesn’t and the reasons behind it. Get them thinking like an engineer.”
Waring is leading the session at the Alliance. When he’s not helping students build paper towers, he works as an optimization engineer, and has worked in the engineering field for more than 40 years. He said he wanted to bring these activities to Communities In Schools to show the value of design thinking — a skill he wasn’t taught in school, but one he says has been invaluable in his career.
As the students try to design their towers, Waring helps each of them with their ideas and tries to show where their thinking may lead to flaws.
“Why do you think this isn’t standing up straight?” he asks Steven, a 5th-grade student whose tower looks more like a long stick. Steven pauses, trying to understand the physics of his tower.
Waring offers an assist. He shows Steven where the tower is tipping over, poking at the top section.
“It seems to me like it needs to be stronger at the bottom,” Waring says.
It clicks for the 10-year-old. Steven wastes no time, manically taping the tower to the desk.
As each student begins to understand the mechanics of the tower, they begin building taller towers. They feed off each other. At first, the tallest tower was 31.5 inches; Steven then began rolling smaller slips of paper together to make it taller and got up to 59 inches, until Abby broke the record with her design.
After each person had successfully built a paper tower, Waring called them all together for a discussion. What worked? What went wrong? And how could they improve for the future?
He also discussed examples of architectural problems engineers consider when building real towers.
“So we learned through this that a good tower, in order to not fall over needs what?” Waring prompted the group. “A strong base!” a few shout out.
Building on that idea of a strong base, Waring then had the students build 25-inch long bridges out of tape and paper capable of holding a 0.5-kilogram weight.
Teaching young students about STEM is about more than just building bridges; it’s about preparing students for the future. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found STEM employment had grown 79% since 1990. The study also predicted STEM jobs would continue to grow at a faster clip than other occupations as technology advances. Further, the median annual wage for STEM occupations nearly doubled — with non-STEM occupations earning an average annual salary of $40,020 and those in STEM occupations earning $89,780.
Under President Joe Biden’s administration, there’s also been a federal push to get more students of color in STEM. In 2020, non-white students made up fewer than 10% of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, according to the International Journal of STEM Education.
CIS and Innovate Chatham see their program as a remedy to this gap. While the program is open to the public, it is based in Siler City and attended predominantly by students who are already enrolled in CIS. Those students are often referred for CIS services because of challenges inside and outside of the classroom.
The skills they learn extend beyond building things with paper and tape. They learn collaboration, critical thinking and how to overcome challenges, according to Shirille Lee, CIS’s program coordinator.
“This is our third time doing this program and each time I’m amazed at what the kids accomplish,” Lee said. “They did coding, robotics, all sorts of things that are well beyond my expertise.”
Waring said he hopes to continue the STEM program to help more students see a future in engineering, and learn the value of design thinking. He also hopes to start more STEM clubs with similar missions in other locations across the county.
“We are hoping to get some parents and grandparents to do some of these projects with their kids,” Waring said. “And, we would like to see if there are people who want to start another STEM Club or two in Chatham. Innovate Chatham would be pleased to help folks get started.”
Innovate Chatham will host a STEM event at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 16, at 79 Degrees West Hub at Mosaic in Pittsboro. It’s entitled “10 Cheap STEM Projects You Can Do At Home,” where Innovate Chatham will provide a demonstration for parents and grandparents of fun, inexpensive projects that secretly teach STEM concepts.
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