First International Christian STEM event takes wing

Sathvik Kommireddy of Alta Loma Christian School in Rancho Cucamonga, California, launches his team's aerial glider at Saturday's International Christian STEM Competition on the GCU campus.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

It had been the thorn in the side of competitors.

The big pickle.

The obstacle that caused utter vexation, then stumped and stopped the robots that dared to tool along the mazelike course at Saturday’s International Christian STEM Competition on the Grand Canyon University campus.

Zac O'Leary (left) and Miles Hamel (second from left), seventh graders at Stoneybrooke Christian School in San Juan Capistrano, California, guide their robot, Sticky Bot, through the competition course.

So when seventh graders Zac O’Leary and Miles Hamel remotely guided their robot through the competition course, and their bot rolled up to that pickle of an obstacle – an otherwise innocent-looking ramp — they were more than concerned, though you might not have known it.

Cool as cucumbers, the Stoneybrooke Christian School competitors walked alongside their robot as it conquered the ramp, no problem.

The roomful of spectators erupted in cheers.

What they didn’t know was that O’Leary and Hamel weren’t sure if their robot, dubbed Sticky Bot, would even make it onto the competition floor. Just hours before, they had to install a new engine.

“I kind of did panic,” Hamel said as they decompressed after their competition round at the University’s Sunset Auditorium.

Will it make it? Will it not? Sticky Bot triumphed at the ramp obstacle.

“It was scary. My legs are shaking,” said O’Leary.

He and Hamel — they’re from San Juan Capistrano, California — were just two of more than 70 middle and high schoolers from nine Christian schools across five states who were at GCU on Saturday for the inaugural International Christian STEM Competition.

“It’s the first Christian schools international STEM competition of its kind that we know of,” said Corinne Araza, Senior Project Director of STEM Outreach for GCU’s K12 Educational Development.

The competition has been two years in the making for GCU, which partnered with the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) to make this event happen.

It was about three years ago, when GCU President Brian Mueller was watching the FIRST Robotics competition, hosted on the University’s campus, that he thought GCU could organize something similar for Christian schools. They do not always have the funding to support STEM programs as much as they would like.

The event included aerospace glider, cybersecurity/capture the flag, IT coding, robotics and mechanical slingshot events.

“Many times, Christian schools, when it comes to rigorous curriculum, are looked at as inferior,” Araza said. But as Mueller and Dr. Larry Taylor, President of ASCI, have expressed, “We have to change that.”

GCU itself has dug in when it comes to STEM education. It opened the College of Science, Engineering and Technology in 2014, launched the IT and computer science programs that same year, then added engineering programs a year later. The University aims to be at the forefront of STEM education as it prepares students to fill a void in STEM jobs and attract top-tier businesses to the state.

Events such as the International Christian STEM Competition are helping schools turn that corner.

“We want to support Christian school education throughout the United States and beyond, and this was an opportunity to do that,” Araza said.

She and Marni Landry, K12 Outreach and STEM Project Director at GCU, met biweekly with ACSI Student Events leaders to deliver professional development for teachers, assist in divisional STEM competitions and work one-on-one with teachers and students in the field.

GCU students also mentored competitors.

For one, the University’s technology faculty and students gave middle and high school competitors a task last fall. When they had questions, they could connect with GCU students through a Slack Channel (a team messaging app), said Rob Loy, Head of Technology programs.

GCU students helped in other ways, too.

“We designed the course, we helped write the rules,” GCU Robotics Club President Jared Smidt said of the club’s contribution to the robotics portion of the competition.

The club took inspiration from some of the college-level VEX events in which it competes to design this year’s robotics challenge. The ramp, by far, was the tyrannical obstacle of the day for the teams.

The event took two years of planning. “Seeing this come to fruition is very exciting,” Smidt said.

Competitors had to place in divisional competitions in Florida, Texas, California, Arizona and Maryland to advance to Saturday’s international event, where they tackled challenges not just in robotics but in aerospace glider, cybersecurity/capture the flag, IT coding and mechanical slingshot.

Muthoni O'Kubo, Christina Lee and Danielle Davis (from left) of Summit Christian School in Cedar Park, Texas, launch purple plastic Easter eggs in the mechanical slingshot competition.

Adjacent to the robotics area, an all-girl team from Summit Christian School in Cedar Park, Texas, launched purple-colored plastic Easter eggs at buckets in various locations on the floor during the mechanical slingshot competition.

Their launcher didn’t quite look like the rubber band launchers of other teams.

“We haven’t seen any other launchers that look like that. It’s awesome,” GCU pre-med major and volunteer judge Jason Freeman told the team. “It had this really interesting design. It looked like a mortar with a barrel instead of a regular slingshot. It was pretty cool.”

What the Canyon Christian Schools Consortium scholar said he loved about the competition was “the designs some of these kids had, as well as their enthusiasm for it. Seeing them deliberate, ‘Oh! Do we go for this next shot? Do we save what we’ve got?’ It was a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of creativity.”

“We did great,” Summit Christian School 11th grader Muthoni O’Kubo said of her team’s mechanical slingshot performance. “We just had to find …”

“… Our sweet spot,” added teammate Danielle Davis, a senior who competed with O’Kubo and junior Christina Lee. “Everything went really well. It didn’t matter what happened. Just that we knew God is in control.”

Sathvik Kommireddy of Alta Loma Christian School in Rancho Cucamonga, California, looked for the sweet spot, too, in the aerospace glider event, eyeing the empty space in front of him and pulling back a rubber band where his team’s glider was perched.

“This is the farthest it’s ever gone,” said Alta Loma language arts teacher Jennifer Palmer, amazed as the team’s glider soared through the air.

Megan Ilertsen, ACSI Student Activities coordinator, has been amazed, too, at the culmination of her organization’s work with GCU – a Christian-school-focused STEM event that wouldn’t have become a reality without its partnership with the University.

“We needed experts in the field … otherwise, it would not have happened,” Ilertsen said.

ACSI Student Activities, for six decades, has organized music festivals, speech events, art festivals and the like for Christian schools. But the International Christian STEM Competition is the first major push toward science, technology, engineering and math.

“We are excited about this new event because I really think it’s coming alongside our schools in the ways that they need to be shifting their educational standards and practices — toward technology and STEM,” she said.

“It’s an opportunity to tell the world that STEM matters, and it’s a cool thing to be a part of,” added fellow ACSI Student Activities coordinator Jana Csehy.

Ilertsen and Csehy said the competition is a way to embrace a different population of students in a way the organization hasn’t been able to before so those students can “start thinking about their futures as ministers in a different profession,” Ilertsen said.

Araza is all for bringing students to the table when it comes to STEM, recalling a central message in the kick-off worship service for the competition: “We talked about, if your calling is in the STEM field, pursue it, because God wants you to.”

In the end, Csehy said, “STEM is another area we want Christians serving.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at 602-639-7901 or [email protected].

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