Story and photos by Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Keily Barrios loves plants. Her friend loves robotics.
The two, both students at Sevilla West middle school in the Alhambra Elementary School District, decided their twain interests should meet and so decided to design a robot that waters plants, turning unsuspecting people into green thumbs.
How exactly does the robot know when a plant needs water?
“It has this moisture sensor that you stick into the soil,” said Barrios about the robot, made to look like a cat. It operates via an Arduino board, which is able to read inputs (a moisture sensor, in this case) and turn it into an output (the release of water).
Barrios was just one of hundreds of students who descended on Grand Canyon University on Saturday to showcase their robots, solar-powered model cars, disaster-relief inventions, PVC pipe bridges and the like as part of the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement central regional competition.
It’s just the first step in the MESA competitions, leading to the state event May 2 and the national event June 15, both of which GCU also will be hosting.
Teams from 47 middle and high schools officially enrolled in MESA, a school-based outreach program designed to increase access to STEM and encourage college readiness, gathered their teams and presented their designs in response to several engineering design challenges provided by Arizona MESA.
One of those engineering design challenges was created by Makayla Jewell, the University’s Robotics Club President and also the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) student worker for K12 Educational Development at GCU.
She wanted to get students thinking in a real-world way and so wrote the curriculum for the competition’s disaster relief challenge.
Corinne Araza, Director of STEM Outreach and Program Development, said the disaster relief challenge started out on a smaller scale with an on-site design challenge last year. MESA organizers liked it so much they decided to make it its own competition category this year.
“They said, ‘Hey, can you make this into something bigger?’” Araza said.
Jewell did just that.
One of the teams participating in the challenge was from Phoenix’s Frank Borman middle school, which designed a slanted-roof house.
Their idea: Create a roof that can stand up better to rain.
The team learned that in certain regions of the world with heavy rainfall, such as countries with monsoon seasons, roofs can’t hold all the water and could cave in.
“We realized if we made the roof at a 9 ½-degree angle, it would direct the rain to the gutters,” said Frank Borman seventh-grader James Servin, who along with the rest of his team was busy in GCU’s Technology Building rehearsing for their design presentation.
Fifth-grader Nehemiah Servin, James’ brother, said the project has a second purpose: The slanted roof also is a way to harvest the rain so the water can be used later, making the roof design more environmentally sound.
Outside on the College of Fine Arts and Production lawn, several teams delved into their solar-powered model car designs.
Rogers Ranch seventh-grader Edgerrin Piechocki and his teammates, who started working on their project in October, guided their solar-paneled car through a Pepsi can obstacle course, of sorts.
Piechocki loves to tinker at home, said his mom, Kathryn Piechocki.
“He’s been engineering-minded since he was a little kid. He builds these cars at home all the time,” she said.
“When I was sick at home, I built a rubber band-powered car,” said Edgerrin, who wants to be an environmental engineer.
He touted some of the neat features on his team’s solar powered-car entry, including pivoting panels that turn to better capture the sunlight, along with a plow in the front for knocking over cans.
What’s special about the MESA program and competitions like the one Saturday at GCU, said Carol Lippert, Executive Director of the K12 Outreach and Education Program, is that it’s for “underrepresented students to encourage them and give them opportunities in STEM.”
According to the MESA program, the vision is to encourage college readiness for low-income, minority or first-generation college-bound students in grades six to 12.
Michelle Castro, advisor for the MESA Club at Frank Borman, said her school was represented by five teams in various design challenges.
“We come from a diverse school – Title 1, low income. The kids see that they can do something with their brains. We channel that for them,” said Castro. “They can see that this can take them into the future, and they can go to a college like GCU.”
Not that the 47 middle and high school students at the recent competition were the only ones to benefit.
A number of GCU students volunteered on Saturday from such clubs as IEEE (the electrical engineering club), the Society of Women Engineers, Robotics Club, SAE and Canyon Christian Schools Consortium, to name just a few.
Jewell said it’s nice to think that she’s at the forefront of helping the next generation as they look ahead to creating a better world.
“The inspiring thing is knowing that they are going to be our future,” she said as she looked across the room in the Technology Building, where middle school students were preparing their disaster relief design presentations. “If I can give my knowledge to them, I know their knowledge will then be stronger. … They are going to be the ones to solve the world’s problems.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at email@example.com or at 602-639-7901.
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