When does seemingly ordinary garbage such as paper cups, straws, and string become something other than seemingly ordinary junk?

The answer is when middle schoolers at Independent Day School-Corbett Campus (IDS-CC) in North Tampa get their hands on it. The junk is transformed into marvels of classroom engineering. Towers, ramps, bridges and cantilevers, each represent the answer to a real-world engineering problem and are amazingly made from otherwise useless materials.

Dubbed the “Junkyard Challenge,” the engineering elective course develops the critical thinking skills and ingenuity of students in grades 6-8. It reinforces fundamental engineering concepts while teaching students about the importance of collaboration, communication and time management under pressure.

At the beginning of each class, the teachers describe the challenge: a structure that needs to be built within specific parameters to complete a pre-defined task.

Working in pairs, students then grab a “mystery box.” When the teachers announce, “Begin!,” the clock starts ticking. Students open their boxes to reveal the odd assortment of materials, which science and engineering teachers Maria Cardona and Alvin De Guzman have carefully selected and strategically arranged exactly the same in each box. Using only the materials provided, the students set to work to quickly engineer the structure within a limited timeframe.

In one class, for example, students had 18 minutes to create a free-standing, elevated ramp that could transport golf balls from a starting point down to a collection container. The ramp needed to be elevated the entire distance, and it could not touch or be connected to the collection container.

The Junkyard Challenge gives students the opportunity to apply engineering principals to solve a real-world problem, says Cardona, an engineer turned teacher. “They have to think about design and plan their structure, and then they have to develop it, test it and improve it, all while staying calm under the pressure of limited time.

For their first challenge, students designed and engineered a free-standing tower that supported a cup and a ball for at least five seconds. “They were able to take some of the lessons they learned during that experience, such as how to reinforce a foundation by folding paper, and apply them to the next challenge in building the ramp,” said De Guzman.

Cardona and De Guzman say the class aims to help students understand the skills needed to become future engineers, but they also hope it sparks student interest in forming a Science Olympiad team at IDS-CC. Considered to be one of the premier science competitions in the nation, the Science Olympiad emphasizes Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (or STEM) excellence. Teams at the elementary, middle and high school levels participate in local, regional and national competitions that consist of a wide variety of events, including the Junkyard Challenge.

It is hands-on problem solving, says De Guzman. “We teach the students by coaching them as they are building their structures. That immediate application helps them more fully retain what they learn.”

For sixth-grader Anthony Nelson, stabilizing the ramp was the hardest aspect of the competition, while seventh-grade student Max Cordell found deciding what materials to use to be most challenging. Sixth-grader Tyler Peterson said coming up with an idea in just a few minutes was tough, but agreed that it’s good practice for a future engineer.

“I want to become an engineer who builds robots that help make the world better,” says Peterson.

And chances are, he’ll be able to use more than paper cups and duct tape when he does.

IDS-CC is located at 12015 Orange Grove Dr. The school is hosting an Admissions Open House on Wednesday, February 8, 8:30 a.m. For more information, call 961-3087 or visit IDSyes.com.

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