Bright minds spark during HESTEC 2015 Middle School Challenge

UTRGV’s Society of Physics Students demonstrated surface area and pressure distribution by having one member lie on a bed of nails, while another smashed a cinder block with a sledge hammer. The demonstration was one of many during the Middle School Challenge, part of HESTEC 2015 on the Edinburg Campus. (UTRGV Photo by David Pike)

UTRGV’s Society of Physics Students demonstrated surface area and pressure distribution by having one member lie on a bed of nails, while another smashed a cinder block with a sledge hammer. The demonstration was one of many during the Middle School Challenge, part of HESTEC 2015 on the Edinburg Campus. (UTRGV Photo by David Pike)

By Karen Perez

EDINBURG, TEXAS – OCT. 7, 2015 – Marco Botello, an eighth-grade student from Elias Longoria Middle School in Edinburg, was given the challenge of building a rocket using three items: an index card, a single straw and a piece of clay.

He only needed the latter two, though. Using the straw and the clay, the aspiring engineer successfully launched an air-powered rocket using a straw rocket launcher.

“If you don’t have any fins on your rocket, it’s going to fly a lot further because there is less drag and it’s probably less weight,” he said.

Botello was one of approximately 1,000 students from middle schools across the Rio Grande Valley who applied problem solving skills during a hands-on activity session presented by Engineering Kids, a nationwide program designed to introduce children ages 4 to 14 to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

That was just one of the many presentations on day one of the Middle School Challenge, part of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Hispanic Engineering Science and Technology (HESTEC) Week 2015.

About 4,000 students are expected to learn of the opportunities available in STEM fields over a four-day period (Oct. 6-9) that includes hands-on activities and educational exhibits.

NASA put students to the test during a spin-off version of Lotería, a traditional Mexican card game of chance. Students shouted “Bingo!” as they marked off entire cards featuring images of astronomical objects identified in English and Spanish.

“It’s a simple little game to help them connect what they’re learning in the classroom through practical application,” said Benito Tober, a fifth-grade science teacher at Ruben C. Rodriguez Elementary School in Edcouch. “Anytime they can get out of the classroom and still continue to learn is a wonderful thing, especially for our bilingual learners.”

PHOTO 3 - Building rockets HESTEC 2015UTRGV’s Society of Physics Students kept audience members on the edge of their seats with a series of don’t-try-this-at-home demonstrations, as part of the group’s “Physics Circus.” Members of the student organization brought to life science concepts, like Newton’s Laws of Motion.

“We hope that they’ll get into engineering and physics more … and we hope that nobody thinks this is all magic,” Daniel Casas, business major and president of the society, said with a laugh. “It’s just really fun to be here and see them all surprised when we bring out certain experiments, like the bed of nails used to explain surface area.”

Luis Segura, a physics major and member of the society, said they use safety equipment to help set a good example.

“When they go back to school and do dangerous experiments, they’ll follow the safety precautions,” he said.

Keith Villarreal, a seventh-grader from Alamo Middle School, said presentations like the Physics Circus keep him motivated in science and math.

“It helps me see how fun science can be and what I can do with it,” he said. “I like space and I wanted to be a pilot, but once I found out about aerospace engineering, I realized I can be the one making the stuff pilots fly.”

Students were able to go inside the Trailblazer II, a science museum-on-wheels that houses about 20 hands-on exhibits, including a hi-def microscope, a robotic arm and a tornado chamber. The Trailblazer II, sponsored by Shell, is part of the Texas Alliance for Minorities in Engineering (TAME), a nonprofit that empowers students to pursue careers in STEM.

PHOTO 1 - MIDDLE SCHOOL CHALLENGE - HESTEC 2015

“We’re getting those ‘aha!’ moments,” said V.J. Willis, TAME Trailblazer coordinator. “Kids get to see that these aren’t just a bunch of geeks in lab coats. They’re getting to play with cutting-edge technology before the rest of the public even gets to see it.”

With a bachelor’s degree in a STEM-related field, individuals can expect to earn anywhere from $75,000 to $150,000 a year right out of college, Willis said.

Other presenters for Middle School Challenge events include the U.S. Navy, Raytheon’s MathMovesU, Magic Valley Electric Cooperative, the U.S. Army, Toyota, and UTRGV’s Planetarium and Mobile Lab.

As day one of the Middle School Challenge ended, eighth-grader Gianna Salinas from Alamo Middle School said she appreciates the exposure HESTEC provides, regardless of one’s interests.

“I like that it inspires students like us to become a scientist or go into engineering or become a teacher, and it really helps people who want to major in those kinds of stuff,” she said. “I want to study political science, but this helped me to experience new things.”

HESTEC’s Middle School Challenge continues through Friday, Oct. 9.

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