Building technical savvy

MESA: The program is helping youths from Howard and elsewhere find the fun - and their footing - in science and math through engineering projects for competition.

April 23, 2003|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Children from area schools have discovered that Howard County Fairgrounds' cavernous main auditorium is a great place to fly paper airplanes.

Normally, teachers might scold their students for such behavior. But this was the regional competition for MESA (Math, Engineering and Science Achievement) programs. Paper airplanes were just one way for youths to display their technical skill this month.

Through after-school meetings and competitions, MESA uses hands-on projects to encourage children in math, science and engineering. The program targets minority students in particular, but is open to everyone. Fifteen elementary, middle and high schools in Howard County participate.

"Kids like to do it. They [the projects] are very high-appeal," said Lee Summerville, acting coordinator of science for county schools. "There isn't a child that doesn't like to do a paper airplane."

Some of the other projects were a mousetrap-powered car and a bridge made of drinking straws. Erin Kilic, 12, a seventh-grader at Murray Hill Middle School, joined MESA because "it sounded like fun to build things." She was on a team of five students working on the straw bridge.

Summerville said teachers are willing to sponsor the program because it is a motivator for their pupils. "Once they [the students] get interested in science, they're being more successful in science."

Teachers meet with students once a week after school and take them to meets and competitions. This month's regional meet was for Howard and Anne Arundel counties. Sixteen schools participated.

The event began with the "Creative Communications" projects, in which students communicated this year's MESA theme.

Students had to take a thorough technical report for their cars and bridges, describing how they were designed and constructed.

"Scientists and mathematicians have to learn to communicate," said Norma Boyd, MESA coordinator for Baltimore, who was one of the judges.

Teams won points for every first, second and third placement toward a trophy for overall excellence. The winners will advance to a statewide competition Friday at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Howard County.

Parents escorted many of the competitors. Ilene Toller of Columbia went with her son David, a seventh-grader at Owen Brown Middle School. "I think it's such a wonderful opportunity for kids to go beyond the classroom," she said. "Applying their knowledge and ... making learning and science fun."

Harold Williams introduced MESA to Howard County schools about 10 years ago as a volunteer and is now MESA coordinator in Howard.

"There's a high level of parental involvement," Williams said. "It helps, I think, by keeping their own children motivated to participate. ... Because our parents are taxpayers ... the parents have a knowledge of what these programs are for" and can see the benefits of funding activities such as MESA.

David Toller's MESA group has been working on a mousetrap car for several months. At the competition, groups submitted their technical reports and ran their cars twice. They sprung the mousetrap and received points for distance. Some of the cars traveled up to 20 feet.

Rootvij Patel, 14, and Chris Narez, 15, are MESA students at Old Mill High School in Millersville. The ninth-graders worked on a mousetrap car and a windmill.

Rootvij said he joined MESA because "it's kind of fun to use your mind in different ways ... the problems you encounter building your project." Their windmill, which was required to lift a bag of 100 pennies, was made of cardboard, Popsicle sticks, toilet paper rolls and duct tape.

"Starting from scratch and seeing your final product is kind of cool ... seeing it work and do what it's supposed to do," Chris said.

"They can see themselves as a scientist or see themselves as an engineer because they have put something together and they know how to build it," Summerville said.

Erin pointed out that her team used triangles in the bridge design after looking at bridges. "I learned how bridges might be constructed, and I learned how to work together," she said.

"If you can see that you can be successful at something, as putting together these bridges," Summerville said, "you can see yourself possibly as an architect."

Information: www.jhuapl. edu/mesa/mesa1.htm.

MESA contest top honors

First-place winners in the Regional Maryland MESA Day scientific contests:

Mills/Parole Elementary School, Anne Arundel County public school system

Murray Hill Middle School, Howard County public school system

Wilde Lake High School, Howard County public school system

First-place winners in specific events, elementary schools:

Harmon: Banner

Laurel Woods: Mousetrap car

Mills/Parole: Clay boat, naked egg drop

Severn: Creative Communications, paper airplane, theme park ride

First-place winners in specific events, middle schools:

Mount View: Naked egg drop

Murray Hill: Creative Communications, gastrointestinal physiology, balsa glider

Owen Brown: Banner, paper airplane, straw bridge, mousetrap car

First-place winners in specific events, high schools:

Howard: Mousetrap car

Oakland Mills: Banner

Old Mill: Creative Communications

Reservoir: Paper airplane, balsa glider

Wilde Lake: Windmill, gastrointestinal physiology

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