At times, Bailey and Breanna Brennan finished each other's sentences. At others, they voiced the exact same thought at the exact same time.
The sisters seemed to be thinking on the same wavelength as they stood in front of the massive project they'd built for the 6th Annual Cardboard Challenge held Oct. 10 at Smoky Hill High School. The duo proudly showed off their 12-and-1/2-foot junior dragster racecar constructed entirely out of recycled materials, a home-built vehicle that featured a working engine, an exhaust system powered via a smoke machine and a reclaimed go-kart wheel set and battery.
It wasn't the first time that the duo had competed in the Cherry Creek School Foundation's annual celebration of creativity, ingenuity and innovation. Bailey Brennan, an eighth-grader at Laredo Middle School, and Breanna Brennan, a senior at Smoky Hill High School, were back for their third competition as a team, having won top prize for their age category in the past for an equally ambitious bobsled.
"We've come back again and again because it's a really fun experience and it gives us something to do over the summer," Bailey Brennan said. "With these big projects, we have to start early."
Breanna Brennan chimed in, "It takes a lot of time to collect all the toilet paper rolls and other materials to build something like this."
The Brennans joined more than 700 students from 65 schools in the Cherry Creek School District for this year's Cardboard Challenge, which summoned impressive feats of engineering, construction and imagination from all grade levels and all buildings. Students set up their projects in hallways and nooks across the entirety of Smoky Hill High School, and a milling crowd of parents, community members and judges packed the space for hours on end to get a peek at the ingenuity on display.
A small sample of the featured creations: a planetarium built of cardboard and Christmas lights; a giant television set with enough room for students to set up inside as anchors; a remote-controlled Wall-E robot that moved and spoke via a cellphone app; a formal gown rendered entirely out of paper materials; a dragon with wings that fluttered at the pull of a string. These were among the dozens of creations on display in the halls of Smoky Hill.
"This is an event about creativity. It's an event about letting kids be kids and letting them build things, whatever is important to them," said Steve Topalian, chair of the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation Board. "I really appreciate the event. I love going around and watching the kids interact with the people who ask them the questions. I love seeing the pride in the parents' eyes.
"Innovation, impact, opportunity – the Cardboard Challenge is all of those things," he added.
For the past six years, the Foundation has organized the district's version of this competition, which was inspired by the 2012 documentary film "Caine's Arcade" directed by Nirvan Mullick. In recent years, the Cardboard Challenge's stress on creativity, problem-solving and the fusion of science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) have aligned more and more closely with the district's focus on innovation and 21st-century learning.
This year, the Foundation worked with sponsors that included Arrow Electronics, the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children and Comcast Internet Essentials Program to make sure that the competition continued to give CCSD students an opportunity to put those skills into practice.
"You all inspire me. I am so proud of you, and I am so excited," said CCSD Superintendent Scott Siegfried after touring the halls of Smoky Hill for several hours. Siegfried spoke to a gym packed with attendees before the formal announcement of winning projects for separate age and grade categories. "The good news is that we get to do this kind of work every day in the innovation spaces at every school in our district, and at the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus that's going to open next year."
Siegfried spoke directly to CCSD parents before offering a message for the entire community.
"I want every one of your kids to have a competitive advantage when they head to college or the workforce or the military," Siegfried said. "This is what makes the Cherry Creek School District great. Again, these students inspired me to tonight. We are all so lucky to be here."
Siegfried wasn't the only one inspired by the projects. Judges from across the community had the difficult task of choosing winning entries from hundreds of submissions. While Topalian spoke for many when he declared, "It's clear that every student who contributed to this event is a winner," the judges finally made the tough choices and awarded $200 cardboard checks to the 14 top entries in four different age categories.
The Brennans' dragster was one of those winners, and the sisters celebrated for what would be their final Cardboard Challenge as a team.
"I love working with my hands," Bailey Brennan said simply.