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Down to a science

Alice Liu of Metrolina Regional Scholars' Academy hurries to correct the path of her team's solar-powered car at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Alice Liu of Metrolina Regional Scholars' Academy hurries to correct the path of her team's solar-powered car at Charlotte Motor Speedway. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

If racing solar-powered model cars, monitoring ozone pollution through smog-sensitive plants and designing the display stand for the “Miracle on the Hudson” plane sound like the jobs of paid professionals, think again.

These and other projects, spotted right here in UCity, are the work of young science and engineering students. For UNC Charlotte’s engineering students, efforts are all about taking on real-world projects. Students, along with the company Airbus, are teaming up to design the display stand that will hold the famous U.S. Airways aircraft in a planned permanent exhibit at the Carolinas Aviation Museum. The stand will allow visitors to view U.S. Airways A320 just as it looked when it landed in the Hudson River. Everyone in the Charlotte-bound plane survived the 2009 jetliner crash.

“Displaying such a large aircraft with its landing gear retracted is a significant engineering challenge,” says William Heybruck, director of the Industrial Solutions Lab at UNCC’s College of Engineering. “It presents a great opportunity for our students to gain real-world experience working with engineers at a premier manufacturer of large aircraft.”

At Vance High School in UCity, the school’s Academy of Engineering recently received a $45,000 donation from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation. The grant pays for software students can use to learn computer integrated manufacturing – a course provided through a partnership with the nonprofit Project Lead The Way, which promotes STEM education.

That stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and many efforts happening locally, especially among K-12 students, are part of this national movement to help students boost their body of knowledge. Started in 2001 by Judith A. Ramaley, a former director of the National Science Foundation’s education and human resources division, STEM is designed to revolutionize the teaching of mathematics and science by incorporating technology and engineering into the regular curriculum, while encouraging problem-solving, discovery and exploratory learning.

Much to do At John Motley Morehead STEM Academy, a K-8 magnet school, over 700 students are immersed in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fundamentals each day.

Morehead students Yarince Pascual and Lismary Almonte, both 11, say being in a STEM school means doing something different every day. Many projects are favorites: For Yarince, it’s creating toy cars powered by snapping mousetraps. Lismary got a kick out of hanging tape outdoors on campus and later examining what it collected using a stereoscope. “It got some bugs.”

“I want to be a scientist when I grow up,” explains Gavin Talbert, a rising seventh-grader. “It’ll be easier to understand what they do.”

One such insightful experience for Gavin and his classmates comes through the Clean Air Initiative, a project in which Morehead students are monitoring the ozone’s impact on plants. Students are using a special garden they planted with Clean Air Carolina, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving air quality in the Charlotte region.

The garden includes cardinal flowers, common milkweed, Black-eyed susans and cutleaf coneflowers – plants that are particularly sensitive to air pollution. More planting and observations will continue this fall, as well as Morehead students’ data collection for Clean Air Carolina.

Christopher Triolo, Principal of Morehead, says as students observe and measure the garden plants, there are opportunities to integrate math, science, reading, and writing into their studies. Since the garden serves all grade levels, teachers find fun ways to teach similar concepts on an age-appropriate level.

For example, kindergarten students learn to spell the names of the plants and their different parts. Fourth-grade students use the garden as a writing prompt about the impact of ozone gases on living plants. And sixth-grade students wrote a persuasive essay on the importance of reducing pollution, “using data from the garden to justify their position,” Triolo says.

The upcoming school year brings two new electives emphasizing STEM. These include a new technology lab – where students will focus on web design, blogs, wikis, podcasts and video casts – and a foreign language component offering Chinese to students at all grade levels.

Race for the sun Charlotte Motor Speedway served as the venue for another innovative project tapping students’ STEM skills. Seventh-graders from Charlotte’s Metrolina Regional Scholars’ Academy, a K-8 charter school for children of extremely high intellectual ability, participated in the Solar Sprint at the speedway last spring. The project requires students to design and construct solar-powered model cars, then compete with them in several categories, including construction, performance, specifications compliance, design and group dynamics.

“Renewable energy is becoming more and more prevalent in the racing community, and it was great to see the students having fun with both,” says Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Community Relations Coordinator Jeslyn Williams

A collaboration between the science and mathematics programs at the Scholars’ Academy, the Solar Sprint applies math, science and engineering skills as students, working in teams, design and build model solar race cars.

“The solar car project is important to our curriculum because it offers students a chance to work hands-on across disciplines,” says Heather Lannon, Scholars’ Academy teacher of Environmental Science, Physical Science, and Biology. “Students explore topics such as electricity, photovoltaic cells, gear ratios, vectors and much more as they engineer cars. The students absolutely love this project because they see the final product of their labors and understand how the car works.”

Scholars’ Academy student Kyle Mitchell, who worked on designing and building a solar-powered car with his teammate twice a week for two months prior to the Solar Sprint, says his favorite part of the process was experimenting with different components of the car to get it to run well.

“We had quite a few problems. The gear ratio was too high, and then the wheels fell off,” explains Kyle. “But, we eventually got our car to go really fast using the solar power. Unfortunately, it was cloudy on race day, so we had to switch to battery power and we didn’t have the right gear ratio for that situation. We still had fun, though. ”

“It was great to see Kyle’s team compete,” says Kyle’s mom, Heather Mitchell. “They had to make many changes at the last minute when they switched from solar to battery power. It was a great lesson in flexibility. It definitely enhanced his math and science education and helped him to apply them to real-world situations.”

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