A group of seven brightly colored balloons floated above Tiffany Dalton's head as she spoke seriously about natural disasters and complicated mathematical equations.
Dalton, 11, was one of about 100 fifth-graders from Antelope Ridge Elementary who gathered in the school's gym on April 8 to show off their know-how in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. They came together to display data, variables and concrete results in an event that bore a resemblance to a traditional science fair. For Dalton and her peers, however, the exercise wasn't merely theoretical – these students were intent on tackling immediate and pressing problems.
Dalton, for example, wasn't displaying the balloons just for decoration. She had rigged them to a miniature vessel holding paper cut-outs of people and supplies. The entire set-up was a miniature simulation of a weather-balloon rig designed to serve as an escape pod during emergencies and natural disasters.
"The problem was figuring out how many pounds these balloons could carry in the event of a natural disaster on the ground," Dalton said, pointing to the precise calculations written out on a carefully designed display board. "Measuring the weight and the pressure was the hardest part, but STEM is my favorite subject," she said, adding that the prospect of discovering "things no one else has thought about before" was the greatest lure of the discipline.
That spirit of exploration and innovation was at the heart of Antelope Ridge's first STEM Fair. Adam McKenzie, STEM teacher for the entire school, wanted to refit the traditional notion of a science fair at the elementary level. McKenzie didn't want to simply assign students by-the-book experiments that only covered theory; he wanted the school's fifth-graders to tackle real and pressing issues.
"Kids had to come up with a problem connected to the real world and solve that problem," McKenzie said. "They had to look at independent variables and look at the data. They had to take those results and apply them to a practical problem."
Those problems ran the gamut from everyday headaches to futuristic quandaries. Student projects explored the practicality of slingshots and tested the effectiveness of using a potato to build a working battery. Other students built hovercrafts and robots; they worked on lessening the impact of ambient noise and improving the efficacy of the common wheel.
"We had experiments with students working with egg drops," McKenzie explained. "Instead of just looking at whether the egg cracked, we actually got a force sensor and were able to measure the force that the egg hit the target at so we could look more accurately at that data."
McKenzie and the other organizers also wanted to draw on experts from across the district to judge the final results. John Eyolfson, science coordinator for the Cherry Creek School District, joined other district officials to interact with students and judge their final results. What's more, parents, siblings and other community members strolled around the gym to take in the impact of the students' work.
It all set an earnest tone for the first-ever event. The participants were competing for a set of rewards – the first-place winner received a free week at Camp Invention, a STEM-based summer event that will be held at Antelope Ridge, while second- and third-place winners took home Lego kits and a Makey Make Go science kit.
Though the prizes were definitely on the students' minds as they showed off their experiments, all of the fifth-graders seemed invested in their work for the greater causes of science and progress.
"It takes that problem-based learning and applies that. These students are starting small, but even though an egg drop experiment may be small today, it might make a connection to something bigger," McKenzie said. "Hopefully, we can show them that eventually, they can change the world with a simple idea."