ISU junior high STEM event exposes local youths to math, science

February 22, 2019

POCATELLO -- The group of seventh-graders from William Thomas Middle School in American Falls built their 3-D spaghetti noodle tower with a triangular base, using marshmallows to connect the corners.

For that engineering challenge during Bengal STEM Day -- hosted Thursday morning by Idaho State University’s College of Science and Engineering -- the students were asked to design a structure capable of withstanding a simulated earthquake.

The ISU College of Technology, Idaho National Laboratory and A&E Engineering also hosted activities for the roughly 500 Eastern Idaho middle-school students who attended. The event’s goal is to expose children at an early age to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Triangles are one of the strongest shapes,” William Thomas student Evan Claunch said, explaining his team’s design choice.

The tower initially withstood the stress after Angie Good, who works in STEM school outreach for INL, activated the “earthquake” table, shaking the pyramid. It finally collapsed after she had the students place weights at the top of their tower for added stress. At least the base held.

“This worked great, so just add a little bit of stability to the top,” Good told the group. “That’s what engineers do every day. They build it, they test it, and if it doesn’t work, they fix it. Failure doesn’t mean you’re toast; it just means you’re learning.”

Students at the event also tested their skills at building model pipelines, making mousetrap cars, assembling bridges out of popsicle sticks, designing a compartment to protect egg “rockets” launched with an air compressor, creating and programming Lego robots and collaborating in a Star Trek simulation, among other activities.

Krystal Chanda, with A&E Engineering, taught students in her “Water Works-Engineering Pipelines” session how to use Bernoulli’s Equation to make calculations on flow through pipelines. Then she tasked the students with building their own pipelines with at least two bends for a Ping-Pong ball to pass through.

“I think the biggest thing is they get to learn how they can apply science and engineering and math to real-life things,” Chanda said, adding pipelines fill critical functions in daily life.

Miriam Dance, a spokeswoman for the College of Science and Engineering, said ISU has hosted a STEM outreach event for several years, both to encourage students to explore careers in the sciences and to raise awareness about ISU’s program. Dance said the event used to be known as Engineers’ Week, until about three years ago, when it was changed to Bengal STEM Day.

Thursday also marked the first time ISU hosted a separate STEM event for middle-school students, rather than having middle-school and high school students attending the same event. The high school STEM event is now hosted in November.

“We are able to encourage (junior high students) to take science and math classes that they might shy away from when they’re in high school,” Dance said, adding high school courses prepare them for pursuing careers in STEM during college.

Dance said her program has roughly 1,800 students. Enrollment in the college, which had been on a steady growth trend, has flattened recently, largely due to decreased international student enrollment.

“STEM fields are in demand right now,” Dance said. “There’s a big push in STEM education that helps us.”