Tech Challenge brings STEM to life

courtesy of Sandy Tierling,
Gardner Bullis School’s Anand Mehta and Kiefer Tierling used a pendulum dampening system to fortify their Tech Challenge building.

Local students drafted plans and donned hard hats last month for the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation’s Tech Challenge for elementary, middle and high schools.

This year’s challenge, “Seismic Engineering in Action,” recast students as urban planners tasked with housing a growing population in earthquake country. More than 2,000 students competed April 25-26 to address a real-world problem – designing a building to withstand earthquakes – including students from Santa Rita, Oak Avenue, Gardner Bullis, Bullis Charter and Blach Intermediate schools.

Santa Rita’s fifth-grade “Wobbles” competed on the second day, mostly made up of seventh- and eighth-grade participants, and reported feeling like the small folks in the room.

“We hadn’t seen some of their creations before, and we were, in my opinion, a bit scared,” Jack Hitching reported.

His teammate Jonathan Lee described their quake-proofed structure as “about as tall as Jack standing up,” built out of “sticks, pool noodles and trusses with hairbands in the middle so that it doesn’t stretch too far but it’s bendy.”

The team used a skateboard as a quake simulator to vet early designs.

“When we first experimented, we used straws and marshmallows, but the marshmallows would get all gooey and the building would tilt over and fall down,” their third partner, Aseem Gauri, said.

Forty-five students from Bullis Charter School participated in the challenge. Fourth-graders Ethan Joseph, Andrews Hwang, Reid Carolan, Nathaniel Joffe, Matthew Bhattacharya and Marston Lukin won third place in “Best Overall” for their “Kung Fu Penguin” design.

Bullis Charter School Principal Wanny Hersey said the students collaborated beginning in August to design and build an earthquake-proof structure. They attended Tech Museum workshops and used online resources to study earthquake-proof buildings across the world.

“Students were allowed to use almost any materials but were asked how the given material could be used – or what would replace it – on a life-size scale if you were constructing a real building,” she said.

In addition to honing engineering design skills, participants presented their designs to a panel of judges in an interview and documented their processes in an engineering journal, Hersey said.

“The boys also utilized skills they learned in the classroom at BCS,” she added. “They brainstormed, constructed personal prototypes and collaborated to build their structure.”

Oak students were recognized for their “Outstanding Engineering Design Process” and two fifth-graders from Gardner Bullis for “Innovation for Pendulum Dampening.”

Kiefer Tierling and Anand Mehta represented the “A and K Modern Inventions” team at Gardner Bullis. Their award-winning pendulum concept crafted an external framework of poles, pivots, rubber bands and padding that could absorb the shaking while an internal living space remained stable. They chronicled early brainstorming in an engineering journal that tracked their five-month development process.

“Rockets weren’t realistic, wheels were uncontrollable, slippery surfaces,” Kiefer said of their early schemes. “I considered magnets – I had done a maglev at our STEM Expo. We also thought of a city connected by a grid of bars – safety in numbers.”

“Or a big ball – but we concluded that the tumbling furniture would hurt more people than the actual quake,” Anand added.

Anand said they also considered “robotic hands that would reach up and push when the building leaned over.”

Their final design was evaluated in San Jose the same weekend Nepal experienced its big earthquake, bringing home the fact that the design exercise targeted very real and pressing human needs.

“I really hope that our building can be made in real life and help people in Japan and Nepal,” Anand said.

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