Nick Boschma STEM Contest

Nick Boschma prepares his STEM car for the competition. 

Grace Fellowship Academy in Buckeye promotes STEM field opportunities for its students and recently held a small competition showcasing their abilities.

A World in Motion, a nonprofit organization working with schools to teach students about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, partnered with Grace Fellowship Academy over the past eight weeks. Two dozen students from sixth to eighth grade divided into groups and built STEM cars, which they showcased with Monday, Dec. 16.

Ken Wechselberger, a volunteer with a World in Motion, said the project is rewarding because it’s educational for the students.

“For eight weeks, we’ve had a good time,” Wechselberger said. “They really accomplished a lot and learned a lot. They learned about torque, levers, rolling resistance, circumference, pie and a lot of different things, but they had fun doing it by making something with a practical application.”

A World in Motion is a national teacher-administered program bringing science technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to students. 

Wechselberger said he worked with General Motors for 40 years and first heard about A World in Motion when he was the president of the alumni club. He said General Motors supports and buys the materials for the students and is currently working with six schools in the Valley and with 2,000 students.

Wechselberger stresses the importance of promoting STEM skills and career opportunities for students at an early age.

“The battles will be won in the future in technology and people need to realize it’s interesting and it’s not just book learning,” Wechselberger said. “That’s why we do this, so they (students) can see science is fun.”

The competition was held in the auditorium and each team decorated their cars. There were 24 students competing and some were nervous, but most were excited to see how far the cars could go. As each team was announced to step up on stage, they were welcomed by a warm cheer and applause from their peers.

The goal was to make the cars travel as far as possible. Each team was given the opportunity to test their cars twice and keep the best score.

As for the project itself, Wechselberger said it was challenging for the students as they had to learn concepts they were unfamiliar with.

“We call it a gravity cruiser,” Wechselberger said. “You learn the power of gravity and you learn the power of a lever.”

The gravity cruiser works by using a weight element (some of the groups used pennies) and placing it on the front end of the lever arm of the car. A string was wrapped around the back wheels to the lever.  The weight of the pennies pulled the front end of the lever arm down, unwinding the string, which turned the back wheels to propel the cars forward.

“The first thing they find most challenging is they don’t know the concept of resistance and friction,” Wechselberger said. “We teach them to make one change at a time, so they understand the incremental difference.”

One of the most challenging aspects of the project, Wechselberger said, was for students to work in teams. 

“A lot of times, they’ve never worked on teams,” Wechselberger said. “We’ve got different levels of students in a team and it’s really surprising to an ‘A’ student when a ‘D’ student comes up with an idea they’ve never thought of before.”

Nick Boschma, 13, is in eighth grade. He said he found it challenging to work in teams but managed to encourage his peers to continue working ahead. His team, Flying Flames, placed fifth in the competition with their longest distance being 18 feet and 7 inches. 

Boschma said while preparing for the competition, his favorite aspect was experimenting with different factors to make the car faster. Going into the competition, he was worried about having technical difficulties.

“I was worried the wheel would rub up on the chassis and it would slow us down and it wouldn’t go that far,” Boschma said. “We would move the fulcrum point up and down to meet the power if we needed more or less so we can go farther.”

Boschma said he never paid much attention to STEM before, but this project changed that.

“This was really one of my first experiences with STEM,” Boschma said. “I think it’s pretty cool and it’s exciting.”

Stephanie Pedersen, the principal of Grace Fellowship Academy, said the school has always tried to instill STEM opportunities in its students.

“I love having experts in the field be able to come out and take their passion and teach it to the kids,” Pedersen said. 

STEM offers many important skills to students to learn, Pedersen said, and being able to learn those skills is equally important. However, she said it can be difficult to learn and many students struggle with it, which is why a hands-on experience was important to the school. 

As for the students, Pedersen wants them to appreciate some of the skills they learned over the past eight weeks.

“I want them to have an appreciation of cooperatively working for others and being appreciative of the volunteers that have come out here,” Pedersen said. “Being able to use those community members and bring them to the school has been a great experience.”

As for Wechselberger, he said he was happy he could reach out to the kids and have them learn something from his time in the STEM field.

“I had the neatest note and it said, ‘I didn’t like science before, but now it’s fun. I want to be in science because it’s hands-on,’” Wechselberger said.