Earlier this fall, shortly after the start of school, the Juneau School District’s three Extended Learning teachers got together and approached Robert Vieth at the Juneau Economic Development Council with an idea.
The teachers were interested in working with Vieth, a STEM education specialist, on a project that would teach students fundamental concepts and ultimately bring them together for a collaborative project.
Vieth said yes, he and the teachers got to work, and “Physics Day” was born.
Teachers Amy Jo Meiners, Kathy Iliev and Becky Engstrom and some 130 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students from all six public elementary schools in Juneau joined Vieth and a number of parent volunteers in the Juneau Arts and Culture Center Monday for the “Roller Coaster Riot,” an event at which students were divided into teams and given scissors, tape, glue, pens, rulers, colored cardstock paper, an information packet, and a brief set of requirements and restrictions — and told to design and build their own miniature roller coasters.
The public event was preceded by a series of classroom visits by Vieth, as well as lessons from the teachers, to teach the EL students about Isaac Newton’s laws of physics.
“They (Meiners, Iliev and Engstrom) had this idea for me to come into the classrooms, teach some science to the kids, and then have some sort of a capstone event where all of the kids from the different elementary schools come together and do some sort of an activity,” Vieth said Monday morning. He said he has visited each elementary school twice over the past two weeks, laying the groundwork for Monday’s event.
“These kids are really — they’re so smart,” Vieth said. “These kids probably know as much physics as a high school kid does at this point. So they know all of Newton’s laws, they know about things like inertia and momentum, they know the difference between vector and scalar quantities. You know, these are concepts that a lot of people don’t know. And they just didn’t memorize the words. They know how they’re applied to physics.”
STEM stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” Vieth’s STEM Alaska program, which is operated through JEDC, aims to educate students in those areas.
“It gives them an understanding of how things work,” Vieth explained. “STEM touches everything you do, every day.”
Engstrom, taking a quick break from walking around the large room and talking to students and volunteers, said she and the other EL teachers wanted their classes to learn more of those STEM-type concepts.
“As teachers, we felt like these kids needed more applicable math and science,” said Engstrom, who is the EL teacher for Gastineau Community School, Harborview Elementary School and Montessori Borealis. “We teamed up with Bob (Vieth) from JEDC. The first thing Bob did is … he trained us on how to teach physics and how to teach engineering to elementary school children.”
The student teams at the Roller Coaster Riot had a mixed school representation, meaning students designing and building the roller coasters did so with a group that might not include any of their friends, or even anybody they knew at all. Nearly all children wore visible nametags, with many displaying the name of their school as well.
“We mixed them up so they also would get to know each other, because sooner or later, these children are going to end up at Dzantik’i Heeni or Floyd Dryden (middle schools), and hopefully they will remember these faces and they will have met new people,” Engstrom said. “We took the nametags and just mixed them all up, so there should be a child from every school in every group.”
Meiners said the new social environment Monday was part of the activity for the kids.
“So there’s some academic goals — you know, just even recognizing the supports need to be at the 90-degree angle in order to get the best support on their columns, the height, just the whole engineering aspect of how to build it,” said Meiners, who covers Auke Bay Elementary School and Riverbend Elementary School. “And then there’s also the social. How do you work together with a team of people that you don’t necessarily normally work with or that you’ve not met before? How can you contribute your ideas and listen to other ideas?”
Down on the floor, students like Auke Bay fifth-grader Luke Strickler were hard at work trying to figure out how to bring their roller coasters to miniature-sized life.
“We’re planning on making it about three feet tall, because each column going up is about a foot,” Strickler said, turning over a piece of brightly colored cardstock in his hands. “We’d need a beam to hold the columns together so they won’t be all, like, falling off.”
Asked whether he would ride his team’s roller coaster if he could, Strickler said, “If I was a mini-person, probably I would.”
In another group, Kiana Potter, a fourth-grader at Harborview, cut a round funnel shape out of a template. The columns for her team’s roller coaster towered three feet high already, with one slanting precariously without any support beams yet affixed to it.
“We’re starting to try and make going down, and then a funnel,” said Potter, who had tucked into her sweatshirt a necktie patterned with the mathematical symbol for pi, which she said her father had lent her. “We are deciding to make a loop-de-loop and a funnel going straight down … because we think it’ll look cool.”
As for the tall columns, Potter explained, “We think that it will be able to have a steeper incline and that we’ll be able to build up more speed. … We want to make sure that it will be able to go through the turns and that it will be able to complete the loop, the upside-down loops, or the sharp turns.”
Mendenhall River Community School parent Whit Adams said he took the day off from his job as a geological engineer at the Greens Creek Mine to help out with the event.
Adams said he hopes his son takes away from the experience “structural knowledge, because it’s pretty important and it’s pretty hard to do.” He named the system of columns and beams intended to hold their group’s roller coaster up as an example.
Vieth said he hopes to get more students interested in becoming engineers. He said he worries there will be a shortfall of engineers and scientists in the coming years, and he wants to be able to bring more of them into the workforce.
“We need to start reinforcing that workforce pipeline,” Vieth said. “And that’s one of the biggest reasons we do this. It’s an economic driver.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at email@example.com.