Sprawled out on the gym floor of the PS/IS 499 on the Queens College campus Friday were stacks of newspaper, the building-block game Jenga, popsicle sticks, aluminum foil and many pennies. The materials were being utilized by engineers — none older than 12 — to construct buildings, boats and even bridges.
Students from pre-kindergarten to 6th grade at the facililty, also called the Queens College School for Math, Science and Technology, had the opportunity to work with professional engineers from Haks Engineers PC, a New York City-based firm.
It’s the third year the school has hosted the “Engineers for a Day” program. The event is the brainchild of science teacher Margaret Avalla and Haks Senior Vice President Alberto Villaman. They devised it after Haks CEO Elliot Sander served as principal for a day at the school and saw potential in its STEM program.
STEM, for Science Technology Engineering Math, has shown throughout the country, including PS/IS 499, that hands-on learning from an early age encourages young minds to think critically and strategically. According to the city Department of Education Progress Report for 2010-11, students at PS/IS 499 scored 59 percent higher in math and English language arts tests citywide and are in the top 26 percent in the entire state.
“It’s a great strategy to have the kids learn tactilely,” Avalla said. “They get to talk to people who are in these fields of work, and the kids ask great questions.”
She hosted one of the six stations titled the “column test.” Students from third to eighth grade rolled up construction paper to create cylindrical column bases of various widths and heights, fastening them only with tape. Their goal was to see how many small textbooks they could stack before the columns collapsed. They made it to 49.
“I couldn’t believe how many books were on before it crashed down,” said fourth grader Otto, adding that the column station was his favorite.
Antonio Mirabal, vice president of Haks, was on hand to answer questions. “They experience through action,” Mirabal said. “And their mindset is so inquisitive at this point that they make even us think. The questions are simple, but never simplistic.”
He lingered around the station he was most excited about, land-surveying. Haks brought along equipment used in the field to show how measurements are taken and equated to find level ground for construction.
“Just look at them,” said Mirabal as one of the fourth graders stood on his tiptoes to peer through the Nikon surveyor. “Kids relate to technology now and we want to embrace that.”
Pre-kindergarten through second-grade students created boats out of aluminum foil and distributed pennies in the vessels to see how buoyancy and balance work together. There was also a Jenga station where the kids got a fun look at keeping a structure stable.
The final area utilized the West Point Bridge Design computer program. Students in the fifth through eighth grade could use an Internet program to see in graphic illustration how tension and compression work throughout construction of bridges.
Many students from the sixth grade sacrificed their lunch period to present the engineering projects they had worked on with their Haks representatives in preparation for the program.
“We encourage them to create hypotheses for their projects, prove them and then with critical thinking write them out,” said Principal Helene Jacob. “It’s a great strategy to get them to think past a particular moment, and it’s rewarding to be able to see the results.”