In a room with purple walls and rubber floors, students from Cesar Chavez Academy buzz with creative energy. They are surrounded by building materials, an abundance of tools, and impressive technology. They drill, discuss, construct, and test prototypes. These students are in the Tech Challenge apprenticeship class and they are preparing for the Tech Challenge competition. Hosted by The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA the Tech Challenge is “a team design challenge for students in grades 5-12 that introduces and reinforces the science and engineering design process with a hands-on project geared to solving a real-world problem.” This year’s challenge was to create a mechanism that harnesses wind energy to move water.
Mario Cuellar, an after-school STEM Coordinator from the Ravenswood School District describes this year’s challenge as particularly tricky because it requires a complex set-up for students to practice on, as well as advanced knowledge in structural mechanics. Only 5% of teams are expected to succeed. In addition to the difficulty of the challenge itself, Citizen Schools teams from traditionally under-resourced schools lack the basic materials, technology, and human capital that most of the other teams at Tech Challenge have in abundance.
However, the students at Cesar Chavez Academy have been provided an invaluable resource: a makerspace. A makerspace is a common work space with an abundance of resources, where engineers and artists collaborate in subjects such as computer programming and mechanics, technology, machining, and digital and electronic art. It is a space where teamwork is encouraged, materials are aplenty, and real world learning through trial and error is essential. Initiated by volunteer Citizen Teacher Robert Pronovost, the STEM Coordinator of the Ravenswood City School District, the district received a grant funded by the Silicon Valley Foundation, DonorsChoose, and a few generous individual donors to build makerspaces in every school in the district. Cesar Chavez Academy is the first to benefit from this invaluable learning space.
The students in the Tech Challenge apprenticeship have spent the spring semester brainstorming and designing their mechanism. They decided to build fans with pulley systems that attach to a funnel that scoops up water and drops it into another container.
Throughout the room, students work through various set-backs. One student’s fan base is too light and it
keeps falling over - a lightbulb goes off. The student fills a plastic baggie with nuts and bolts and secures it to the fan base as a weight. The fan stands tall and secure. Problem solved.
The goal behind the creation of the makerspaces and the Tech Challenge are intertwined: to create a space where students use creativity and teamwork to solve real world problems; where imagination is sparked as students utilize the math and science skills they learn in the classroom to build real things with their hands. The space is a breeding ground for creative minds, and ignites new interest in STEM subjects with every opportunity to collaborate and build.
When asked what his favorite part of the apprenticeship was, one student, Christian, replied that he was really excited to attend the Tech Challenge and represent Cesar Chavez Academy. He shrugged when asked if he thought they’d win the competition. Instead of winning he was focused on the new-found pride he had in his school, his peers, and the effort they put into competing in the Tech Challenge, regardless of the outcome.
Fast forward to April 12, the day of the Tech Challenge. Christian was chosen to present Cesar Chavez Academy to the judges. When his teacher asked if he was ready to present, Christian answered, “I got this. I will present with confidence!” While Christian’s presentation was charismatic, his team fell just short of moving one liter of water in the allotted amount of time. Meanwhile, another Citizen Schools team from Joseph George Middle School succeeded in the challenge! All students were excited and supported each other throughout the event.
This spring we celebrate many successes. While one is memorialized with a medal, the other can be felt in the pride students felt when representing their school, the confidence they gained by presenting in front of a massive audience, and the excitement of participating in a state-wide competition. We all look forward to overcoming greater challenges and celebrating more success next semester.