By Lloyd Jones
CONWAY — Kennett Middle School played host to the first STEM Festival on Thursday with sixth-graders from across SAU 9 attending and getting the opportunity to put their engineering skills to good use.
The students spent a good portion of their day with the STEMbassadors, 19 students from the University of New Hampshire's College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, who are on a three-day tour of the Granite State that will culminate on Saturday in Berlin.
"We have seen an overwhelming response from our students who want to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers," said Sam Mukasa, dean of the college.
STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
According to Brooks Payette, communications/outreach manager for the College of Engineering and Physical Science at UNH, the STEMbassadors program is "a new educational outreach initiative aimed at providing rich STEM educational experiences to the K-12 community throughout New Hampshire."
Payette, who grew up in Berlin (and wrote for The Berlin Daily Sun) said the visit to Conway kicked off three days of STEM festivals.
The STEMbassdors are scheduled to visit with students in Berlin, Gorham, Groveton and Lancaster, finishing up with a regional event in Berlin on Saturday.
"Last year, we were able to get to nine of the 10 counties in the state," Payette said. "We reached 3,500 kids."
The STEMbassador program formed last year and debuted in Berlin at a two-day North Country STEMFest last fall.
The day in Conway kicked off with sixth-graders from Josiah Bartlett Elementary School, Jackson Grammar School, John H. Fuller, Pine Tree and Conway Elementary School gathering in the middle school gymnasium.
Payette introduced the UNH students who came with him from Durham for the day. The group took a few questions from the youngsters, who were drawn to a robot the Wildcats brought with them.
The first question — How long did it take to build the robot? — received the answer, "It took a little over a month."
Asked how long they were going to be in college, one STEMbassador replied, "Hopefully, four years."
A sixth-grader wanted to know if UNH is difficult to get through. "You don't sleep," a male student answered with a smile, but added, "As long as you stay on top of your work, you can get through."
The STEMbassadors were asked what inspired them to go into engineering.
"I wanted to do something I have a love for," a female STEMbassador said. "I love math, so I became an engineer."
Students were assigned different locations at the school where they would be working with STEMbassadors. They were given an hour to design a theme park ride.
The students were broken up into groups of four with no more than two from the same school. They were given a 5-foot section of PVC pipe, 10 straws, two sheets of copy paper, three plastic cups, two pingpong balls, 2 feet of string, two bender clips, a sheet of cardstock, 3 feet of masking take and a pair of scissors.
The youngsters put their heads together and brainstormed for all they were worth. There was plenty or trial and error, but each group began to enjoy some success, though some "rides" were a bit on the fast side.
"That slowed down quite a bit, but it's still quick," said Heidi Belle-Isle, a sixth-grade teacher at Pine Tree. "If I had just enough Dramamine (motion-sickness medicine) I might do it."
"If you're designing my amusement park ride, I want it to be tested daily," joked Peter Malkin, a sixth-grade teacher at Conway Elementary.
Malkin marveled at the children's curiosity. "The engagement is fascinating," he said. "They are intrigued. What's really nice to see is the kids from other schools working so well together."
After an hour, the sixth-graders demonstrated their rides and explained their methods.
"We had an idea to use straws to help as a brake," sixth-grader Ben Biche from Pine Tree said. "We thought that could stop (the three cups that were assembled together), but it sent (the pingpong balls, which represented passengers) flying."
Biche said the STEMbassadors planted seeds of ideas that really helped. "We were told about aircraft carrier brakes for planes," he said. "When the planes land on the ship, they have a hook to help them brake. We tried to do that."
Each of the groups had unique designs.
"Have you ever seen the show 'Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?'" Malkin asked. "Every day, I know I'm not as smart as a sixth-grader. All of these kids did great."
Following a lunch break, the students reconvened for an hour of design team work that culminated with a few getting to navigate the robots.
"It's wonderful to have the sixth-graders in the building," said Linda Burns, secretary at the middle school. "They're such an enthusiastic bunch."