A few of the parents in the nearby stands cheered or shouted words of encouragement, while others watched quietly, nervously fidgeting or excitedly chewing nails from the sidelines.
No, it wasn’t a sporting event that had their sons and daughters engaged in competition this past Saturday afternoon at McMaster University in Hamilton. Rather, groups of grade 7 and 8 students from Trinity Christian School in Burlington were collaborating to solve a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) related challenge at the area’s first Mathstronaut’s “Hackathon” for middle school students.
Trinity Christian School sent four teams of four students to participate in the Science and Engineering competition—two groups in each category.
The first category focused on thinking critically and creatively. Students were challenged to design and construct an apparatus that would prevent a raw egg from cracking when tossed from a height of 3 meters (16 feet) or more.
“Our team chose to participate in the science challenge,” reflects grade 8 student Anna Masengi. “Each team had a mentor to help better explain certain concepts. We learned about different forces that would affect our carrying device and performance, as well as how to use them to our advantage.”
As they were building their device, Anna and her team relied on this information, as well as skills they had learned in their Science and Math lessons at school. To try and create a winning edge in the design of their project, they focused on incorporating elements of air resistance and shock absorption into their carrier, and tested them out from various heights on the McMaster campus.
“We were judged on our devices and on the solution we had provided for the problem given,” relates Anna. “We also dropped our carriers from three meters in front of the judges so they could mark their effectiveness.”
Excitement rippled through the room as the various groups demonstrated their designs and tested them in front of the judges that afternoon. “Our team came a close second,” said Anna, “but we enjoyed the whole day all the same.”
The second category of competition was more technically challenging, involving coding and programming while offering lots of room for innovations and creativity from the student groups as well.
“Our challenge was to build a home security system and to make it work using coding, wires, and various sensors,” describes grade 8 student Connor Stronks. His group built a model with sensors to detect an input, causing the activation of an alarm and LED lights to flash.
“We made it work with a laser perimeter that went across one side and kind of made it on another. This was an innovation that no other groups had, and it made a huge difference with our chances of winning or not.”
“We also made alarms inside of the house and made all of the sensors—fire, water, and laser—have distinct alarms and distinct lighting. This was difficult because none of us knew how to code and they taught it to us there,” added Stronks.
Teacher Al Bezuyen was excited by how well his students fared in the competition. “This was the first time we’ve done this event. It was something that I was interested in—finding out how my students would do, using the different areas of Science and Math that we’ve been studying so far this year.”
The competition, offered to students in grades 6-8, had 95 entrants, 16 of which were volunteers from Trinity Christian School in Burlington. Hackathons are more common at the university level, but less so in high school or elementary grade levels. The term Hackathon comes from the words “hack” and “marathon”, in which groups of students collaborate on computer programming and problem solving, creating “hacks” into a problem to create a solution.
“It was exciting for our community, having sixteen students who were willing to take their Saturday and spend it representing our school at this event,” shared Bezuyen. “One of the things that we’re finding is that there are multiple opportunities for kids to become involved in physical types of events, but there are less opportunities for them to compete in less athletic competitions such as this one. So when things like this come across my desk, I’m excited to give the students the opportunity to participate and to compete.”
Trinity students have seen success in similar science competitions over the past number of years. Last year, one of their students progressed to the all-Canada level of the Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair (BASEF), and won a silver medal there. Three years prior, two of their students also made it to the all-Canada level, where one of them went home with a bronze medal. More recently, in 2015, sixteen Trinity students were involved in BASEF, winning fourteen medals and taking home the prize for most points overall.
Along with their ability to put their science and math skills to work effectively, Trinity students attribute their success in this competition to their ability to pull together and work collaboratively as a team.
“I had a great time, my group worked well together, and we got a lot done,” shares Michael Wolfe. Michael’s team, including Conner Stronks, Sydney Barz, and Mason Barz, won first prize in the engineering contest, while the second group of Trinity students that competed in the same engineering activity placed second. “The reason we won was because of innovation, making use of available materials, and teamwork. Everyone was having fun, and the challenge didn’t seem like work at all!”