Highlands students flex scientific muscles at STEM Family Night

After hours of toiling away at kitchen tables, turning living rooms into sterile laboratories, and compiling vast amounts of painstakingly-collected data, Highlands students were ready to present their findings at STEM Family Night at Highlands School on Thursday. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

8th grader James Earp collapses after his tower was toppled by a colleague’s catapult as part of the hands-on activities brought by Macon County STEM Coordinator Jennifer Love on Thursday at Highlands School.

The old gym was full of enterprising and innovative experiments that focused on a question and let the facts reveal what they may. Students tackled brainteasing mysteries like 4th grader Alejandra Valerio who was brave enough to get to the bottom of discovering what liquid makes gummy bears expand the most.

After meticulous timekeeping and measurements, Valerio tested the malleable-gelatinous candy in vinegar, water, salt water, and Sprite. Her findings contradicted her initial hypothesis.

“I really thought it would be vinegar, but I was wrong,” said Valerio. “It was really fun seeing which one would grow the biggest.”

4th grader Alejandra Valerio presents her findings of what liquid makes gummy bears expand the most at STEM Family Night at Highlands School on Thursday.

Valerio added that she could not have completed the experiment without the help of colleague and fellow Highlands student 4th grader Taylor Hays.

Highlands Middle School Science Teacher Stephanie Smathers has organized the science fair for years and said it’s a great way for students think outside the box and devise their own projects.

“We’ve always had a science fair, the kids make a project and the parents get to come and see all the things they are learning,” said Smathers. “It opens the door to kids that science is fun. It’s not just sitting in a classroom, this is a hands-on activity.”

Highlands School Resource Officer Tim Broughten helps build a track with students who are trying to solve an engineering challenge at STEM Family Night.

To add to the hands-on theme approach to science was Macon County STEM Coordinator, Jennifer Love. Love and staff brought a variety of STEM activities for the students to interact with in between presenting experiment results other science enthusiasts.

“We ask them open-ended questions and give them engineering challenges using things like blocks, sticks, and catapults, you name it,” said Love. “And as you can see, they are having a blast and learning that science is fun.”

4th grader Francisco Gooch studied the boiling points of water versus salt water.

“If salt affects the boiling point of water, that’s like the sea and the sun,” said Gooch. “If there is an effect, I can solve global warming.”

4th grader Francisco Gooch explains if he could only find a correlation between salt, water, and boiling points he could solve global warming.

Some students ventured into science that was difficult to quantify using traditional methods, like 4th grader Leela Chrestman who studied the effects of positive and negative energies on plants.

Leela Chrestman studied how positive and negative energies affect the growth of plants. Her hypothesis was correct, negative energy hurts plants and therefore is not good for humans.

She deduced that the type of energy does indeed contribute to a plant’s growth or decay. Of the two plants tested, one was exposed to negative comments written on the jar, sad music played through headphones propped on a plant, and other factors to test her theory. The plant subjected to negative energy showed more decay compared to the plant exposed to positivity.

“The moral of this story is be kind to one another because you can hurt other people,” said Chrestman. “The negative plant is deformed and it’s a plant, just think of what it could do to people. This just proves what we should do.”

Some students like 4th grader Elmer Hernandez dove into more volatile mysteries such as what combinations of liquids cause volcanoes to explode. Before collecting data, Hernandez had to first build a model of a volcano surrounded by a forest for authenticity. He tested a variety of combinations using chemicals and other materials like, water, Coca-Cola, Corona, and rice.

4th grader Elmer Hernandez studied what combinations of substances create explosive reactions in volcanoes.

The largest reaction occurred with a mixture of Coca-Cola and rice.

“I never knew that or would have expected that,” said Hernandez. “And it was an accident, I was working on it and my brother put rice in it and it started fizzing.”

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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