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Engineering challenge

Itzel Cardenas and Samantha Vasquez, both in sixth grade at Sinagua Middle School, work to construct a tower at the first meeting for students in the engineering challenge. The girls' tower was able to hold the antenna and complete the challenge. 

Middle school students gathered around the table, counting down to see if the tower, made entirely of index cards and masking tape would hold an “antenna array” made of an index card and binder clips, for 10 seconds.

The challenge was the first of many for the new “Engineering Challenge” after-school program at Sinagua Middle School, which is participating in a pilot program for an after-school engineering and science curriculum.

The group was open to students of any grade level at Sinagua, and students had the choice of two topics to study throughout the eight-week program. Students could pick “Engineering Greywater Systems” or “Engineering Remote Sensing Devices.”

Jillian Worssam, a science teacher at SMS, coordinated bringing the project to the school through networking with the local STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) community in Flagstaff. The project is funded by a grant given to the Center for Science Teaching and Learning at Northern Arizona University. The program is being developed by the Museum of Science in Boston and the USGS and will be revised based on feedback from Worssam, SMS teacher Ashley Esparza and independent observers.

“This is remote sensing, it’s amazing technology, and it was designed here in Flagstaff,” Worssam said.

While building the tower was the group’s first project of the year, Worssam said subsequent weeks will focus more heavily on remote sensing.

“We want to encourage the engineering design process as a way of thinking,” Worssam said. “They need to use their critical thinking skills and their problem solving skills.”

Projects designated for later in the year include creating secret messages that can only be revealed with colored cellophane glasses the students will make and making a periscope using mirrors.

The group studying greywater will measure contaminants in water before and after it has been through a filtration system, examining uses for recycled water and create a system for purifying water that could be used on the space station.

About 50 students in the three middle school grades are participating in the challenge, which will last for eight weeks. 

STEM City coordinator Mindy Bell serves as one of the independent observers to critique the curriculum, and she said she plans to assess the teachers’ needs throughout the pilot program, as well as aid in professional development for teachers interested in participating in the program.

Bell said the program is the first time science and engineering will be deliberately merged into the middle school curriculum for after-school programs, and the goal of the pilot is to see what educators need to encourage their students outside of class time to continue their interest in science and engineering.

As for the tower project, all five of the towers were able to hold the antenna for the requirement of 10 seconds, prompting high fives and pride from the students.

The reporter can be reached at or 556-2249.


City Government and Development Reporter

Corina Vanek covers city government, city growth and development for the Arizona Daily Sun.

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