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Science challenge brings schools together

Written on May 7th, 2018

Above photo: The team from Immanuel Christian School show judges their hydraulic device on Challenge Day.

Students from seven Christian schools competed in the inaugural Bluewater Christian Science Challenge this year providing an opportunity to put fluid power in the spotlight and give students a hands-on learning experience. Students from London Christian Academy, Strathroy Community Christian School, Immanuel Christian School in Aylmer, St. Thomas Community Christian School, Chatham Christian School, Maranatha Christian Academy in Windsor, and Mount Salem (an ACSI member school in Aylmer) all participated.

Grade 7 and 8 students worked in groups of four to build a device powered by water that solved the challenge of picking up a cylinder, rotating it and moving it to one of two locations.

Most participating schools used the challenge in place of their traditional science unit on fluids. The work fit into the science and technology curriculum including Grade 7 Form and Function, Grade 8 Systems and Grade 8 Fluids.

The Bluewater district schools accessed resources from the Canadian Fluid Power Association (CFPA), which created the challenge and has resources for students and educators to use. Keith Cameron, principal at Immanuel Christian School in Aylmer and member of Bluewater’s organizing committee, says the CFPA was incredibly supportive and provided schools with a source for resources and technical assistance throughout the process.

To kick-off the challenge, 156 students involved at their respective schools came together for an all-day workshop in January hosted at London District Christian Secondary School (LDCSS). Students learned fluid power concepts and were introduced to the tools and materials they would use to build their devices. They practiced building simple fluid power devices and at the end of the day learned about the challenge.

Back at their own schools, teachers organized time for the student teams to design a device to pick up a dowel off the challenge board and move it to one of two locations. Students worked to test and fine-tune their devices and documented their process in a design portfolio.

Sarah Hopman, science teacher and vice principal at Chatham Christian School (CCS), ran the challenge with both her Grade 7 and 8 classes. The kits included materials such as wood pieces, syringes and plastic tubes. The tools each group needed could also be purchased as a kit including a small saw, mitre box, ruler, scissors and safety glasses and more.

Students were able to use the high school’s woodshop and learn how to use a drill press. Both classes worked for about five weeks on their portfolio and design and then each school held its own competition. From that competition, Mrs. Hopman chose members from various teams to form the Grade 7 and Grade 8 team for the regional competition. It then became an extracurricular club to prepare for the Challenge Day. The CCS teams spent time after school looking at all the prototypes in their classes and rebuilt and fine-tuned a design for their portfolio.

Strathroy Community Christian School science teacher Julie Reitsma decided to run the challenge as an after school extra curricular program. Nine students took part, meeting after school weekly for about two hours. The school received a grant to help with the costs involved.

Schools then hosted their own internal challenge day to test the devices and determine which team would be moved onto the regional Challenge Day, held March 23 at LDCSS. The students who moved on could make a second prototype to prepare for Challenge Day.

On Challenge Day, teams could only bring in their portfolio and used that to recreate their devices from scratch. Teams then took turns moving their device onto a challenge board to perform a two-minute timed challenge with the aim to move as many cylinders as possible and accumulate points. The teams were also interviewed about their devices. “It was a fun, competitive atmosphere,” Mrs. Hopman says.

Stephen Rogers is the director of Mechanical Kits Ltd., the supplier of kits for the Canadian National Fluid Power Challenge. He attended Bluewater’s workshop and final Challenge Day and helped lead the events.

“I was quite impressed with the way the teams worked together and I think the work ethic they had was really good,” Mr. Rogers says. The overall quality of the work was well-done and the winning team’s design was elegant, he adds.

The winner was graded on performance of their device and portfolio quality, with an additional prize for the best portfolio.

The Bluewater Christian Science Challenge organizing committee gives credit to science teacher Racheal Dykstra from Jarvis Community Christian School for the idea. As the OACS News previously reported, Mrs. Dykstra began running the fluid power challenge with her students in 2013, having discovered it through a Science Teachers Association of Ontario Conference. She modeled it after the National Fluid Power Association (NFPA) Fluid Power Challenge.

Mrs. Dykstra presented about this resource at the 2016 Edifide Convention, which piqued interest from the Bluewater district schools.

In a recent interview, Mrs. Dykstra says she continues to run the fluid power challenge every other year at Jarvis, opposite of the Science Fair. She teaches structures first, which gives background for how to build and support and then introduces fluids and how to build a lister and rotating platform. Her students then have six weeks to work on their build until Jarvis’ school challenge day, where students use their blueprints to recreate their work.

Mrs. Dykstra says she would love to have other schools involved in the challenge but understands for some the cost for the kits is a deterrent. But, in her experience, that cost can be offset by a creative endeavor. For example, Jarvis school runs an electronic recycling drive which brings in about $500.

CCS students who moved onto the Challenge Day found different aspects of the event exciting, from the two-minute demonstrations to seeing their device work successfully to working on the build. The Grade 8 team won Best Overall Design and the Grade 7 team were runners up in both Best Design and Portfolio.

“This was a whole different type of science,” says Grade 7 student Abigail, noting fluid power had never come to mind when thinking about science until now.

The collaboration provided schools the opportunity to work together and for students to see they are part of a wider family of schools with peers involved in similar activities. Students also discussed how good design is part of the creation mandate to take care of our world.

Abigail says she appreciated the chance to be among other Christian school peers and the time spent talking about how they could see God through what they were learning and looking at through Bible verses.

The challenge also taught students the importance of being prepared and having their portfolio available to help them through the challenge.

Andrew, a member of CCS’ Grade 8 team, found it interesting to work alongside a group outside his own classroom and seeing what they built and how some were the same and others were completely different. The students saw some unique scissor lifts and an extending device from other school teams.

“I thought this was a really fun project,” he says. “It was something new and it was interesting to figure out how to make a device that accomplished moving the dowel from one circle to another.”

Using a challenge format was “incredibly motivating,” and engaged the students, Mr. Cameron says. While students at his school have previously built hydraulic devices, having such a large competition stretched students more in the areas of creativity and design, which he thinks will increase their memory of the work.

The challenge sparks students’ interest towards engineering and hydraulics, says Miss Reitsma. This goes beyond the classes involved with Grade 5 and 6 students already looking forward to the 2020 challenge.

One of the benefits to running the challenge every other year is that it provides a break from the traditional science fair, Mrs. Dykstra notes. For the fluid power challenge students work in groups of four, allowing them to collaborate and do most of the work at school. Many students who struggle with learning the concepts from a textbook understand it once its hands on.

The challenge aimed to open the eyes of teachers and students to technology careers, which Mrs. Dykstra has seen firsthand. That approach is already bearing fruit. A student who participated in Jarvis’ first challenge is now graduating high school looking to go into engineering and credits the fluid power challenge. This student had been hesitant to move away from a textbook, but after seeing the device come together from the blueprints was inspired, says Mrs. Dykstra.

The educators noted that in addition to increasing students interest and accomplishments in science and engineering the project boosted their problem-solving and communication skills. In many cases students talked with local engineers and were interviewed by other adults about their work.

The event served schools well in focusing on engineering and bringing everyone together, Mr. Cameron says.

“We would love to see that collaboration continue in the district and if there’s a wider expansion beyond that that would be great,” he tells the OACS News.

The challenge was new for the educators as well. “There were plenty of times that I couldn’t help problem solve with the students and I just had to let them go,” says Mrs. Hopman. “That was a great experience for myself to be OK with not having mastered everything with them.”

One of her students shared that he enjoyed having something other than the traditional extra-curricular sports. Mrs. Hopman notes that was a reminder to consider how to involve students who have different passions at school.

“If we can connect it to our curriculum, connect it to our community and connect it to our local experts—and give the kids authentic audiences for these projects—I think that’s fantastic,” she says. “I’ll be looking for ways to keep going with this kind of activity.”

To learn more about the Challenge, visit If you are interested in learning more or taking part in a possible Bluewater Christian Science Challenge in 2020 contact Mrs. Hopman at Chatham Christian School.