GCU, MESA have designs on helping K12 students engineer STEM careers

Vista del Sur eighth grader Joaquin Miller (center) watches as his team's microrobot zips along a path in the Onsite Coding Challenge at Saturday's MESA Regional Design Day on the GCU campus.

“Whoo! Eighteen seconds and 66! 11 less seconds!!!!” Nathaniel Sanou cheered from Grand Canyon University’s business complex at 27th Avenue and Camelback Road.

The seventh grader from Vista del Sur Accelerated Academy in Laveen Village yawped his excitement after seeing how much faster his team’s micro-sized robot zipped along a twisty-turny black path, via tracking sensors, to the end of the route.

“We’re going to copy the JavaScript code,” another student said, saving the coding so their Smart CuteBot can repeat its trailblazing run.

After programming and re-programming to make the bot go faster each time, they had cause for celebration, claiming one of the faster times of the day.

They were just one of the teams on campus Saturday for Arizona MESA Regional Design Day – MESA stands for Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement.

MESA-enrolled middle school and high school competitors from 20 underrepresented STEM schools dug their heels into several design challenges at the regional, co-hosted by GCU and the University of Arizona and facilitated by the GCU K12 Educational Development Department.

About 20 STEM underrepresented schools practiced several engineering challenges at MESA Regional Design Day.

It is the only STEM competition that serves underrepresented students and why it’s so important that it’s hosted on GCU’s campus, said Dr. Cori Araza, senior project director of K12 STEM Outreach.

The University has long been a champion for underrepresented communities and sees STEM as the future when it comes to jobs, particularly in Arizona.

MESA USA, which includes statewide MESA programs in 10 states, wants more representation in the STEM disciplines from underrepresented communities, as does GCU.

“We are blessed and fortunate to partner with an organization that upholds supporting K12 underrepresented STEM students in our neighborhood,” Araza said. “We had 340 students from this neighborhood that we served today on campus.”

Sanou and his team competed in the Onsite Coding Challenge in Building 71, where GCU software development junior Savannah Krey stood watch over the mini robot goings-on.

Software development junior Savannah Krey (left) volunteered to facilitate the MESA regionals' Onsite Coding Challenge. She was one of more than 40 GCU students volunteering at the event.

She offered a helping hand when needed and was one of more than 40 GCU students volunteering at the event from such groups as the Canyon Christian Schools Consortium and various STEM clubs, like the Engineering, Robotics and Technology clubs and the University’s Society of Women Engineers chapter, to name a few.

“I LOVE STEM outreach and to see my love of coding be translated to the younger generation,” said Krey, who’s also the lead of GCU’s Coding With My Girls, which introduces computer programming to girls and young women. “They’re looking up to me and I’m looking up to them. It’s great seeing them grow (in their love of STEM) at a young age.”

And to see unbridled reactions from students such as Nathaniel Sanou, “It’s really great to see them be SO excited when they get it,” she said.

Schools use the regionals to practice for the state competition, coming up May 4 at the University of Arizona, though students have been practicing for these engineering challenges for months, including the Vista del Sur Cornhole Catapult Challenge team.

The middle school team is part of the school’s MESA Engineering Club, which meets every Monday to tweak their catapult, built by students the previous year.

Seventh grader Shloak Solgama (second from right) from Vista del Sur Accelerated Academy in Laveen Village launches a bean bag at a cornhole target in the Cornhole Catapult Challenge.

“We’ve added on to it,” said seventh grader Shloak Solgama, who was part of last year’s team and is more than happy to detail the improvements he and his fellow students have made.

They added new rubber bands. Oh, and pool noodles.

Wait. Pool noodles?

As Solgama explains, the bean bags that the team’s catapult launched just didn’t have enough oomph.

“We’re trying to make it more of an arch,” Solgama said of the bean bags’ launch path as he and his team took over the lawn outside of GCU’s Building 71 to fling countless bean bags at the hole on a cornhole board. “We fixed that with the pool noodles … to angle it.”

Solgama’s favorite part of this whole catapult deal: “I like launching it,” he declared, and with a hard hat on, did just that, though teammate Andrew Roman liked a whole other aspect of the process.

“I like adding more things onto it,” Roman said of making catapult improvements.

He's an engineer in the making.

Inside the building, yet another Vista del Sur team was in the throes of tweaking their robot in the MESA Attack Vehicle (MAV) Design Challenge.

Vista del Sur Accelerated Academy science teacher Dr. Kerri Palmer (right) consults with her team, which was practicing for the MESA Attack Vehicle Design Challenge. The goal: to disable an opposing robot or push it out of bounds.

Dr. Kerri Palmer, seventh and eighth grade science teacher, describes the competition as sumo wrestling for robots. The goal? Disable the opponent or push it out of bounds.

Students, on a circular mat, tested their robot by programming it to rudely shove a steel water bottle off the circle.

“It’s strong!” one student proclaimed.

That was a big accomplishment, considering the students’ bot didn’t work when they arrived at GCU that morning. The team had to pivot but got their bot working and sumo-wrestling ready.

“This has real-world applications,” Palmer said of the MESA program. “They (students) are programming and using engineering design processes.” But more importantly, they’re failing, “and learning from that failure and getting better.”

Eighth grader Tawhidur Rahman, part of the Vista del Sur MAV team, said he loved the challenge of the competition and how experimental the team needs to be to get to the best design.

He also likes the teamwork: “All of us worked together drastically on this robot,” he said.

Maafu Otukolo (left) and Zeiynap Al-Hemedat of Trevor Browne High School test their rubber-band-powered vehicle.

Just across the way from the MAV practice area, the gears were turning for Trevor Browne high schoolers Maafu Otukolo, Zeiynap Al-Hemedat and Delilah Sanchez.

Unlike other teams who worked on projects ahead of MESA Regional Design Day, they delved into an on-site challenge announced at the event – to build a rubber-band-powered car and make it travel as far as possible. Their car, made of wooden sticks, carboard, CDs and rubber bands, whipped along the rug and surprised the teens, who laughed gleefully after a successful rubber band-powered run.

“We’re just trying to be creative and see what works and what doesn’t,” said Al-Hemedat.

liani Soto Bustamante, Aria Gosnell and Charlotte Barnes of Vista del Sur Accelerated Academy (from left) design a vehicle using cardboard, CDs, sticks and rubber bands.

Araza is amazed every year at the ingenuity of the middle school and high school students at the event.

But she’s enthralled by the leadership showcased by GCU’s students, like freshman cybersecurity major Jordan Ward, who set up a cybersecurity capture-the-flag event to test students’ cyber abilities, from encryption/decryption to navigating Linux to testing their research and problem-solving skills.

“I love these little kids,” he said of working with the students at the event and seeing the great things they can do.

GCU students Trevor Baines and Diego Briceno started a business called Arcane Security at the University’s business incubator, Canyon Ventures. They were employed by MESA to come up with the concept for a cyber sleuthing competition, Araza said.

“Our GCU students are inspiring this next generation. They’re giving them hope to come to college,” Araza said. But more than that, “They’re giving them hope to purse a STEM career.”

GCU Manager of Internal Communications Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU News: Students launch their interest in STEM at state MESA competition

GCU NewsSTEM savvy launched at MESA Regional Design Day


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