Holston Middle School teacher August Askins works with students on an engineering project at Gear Up 4 STEM Camp, held during Fall Break at Ball Camp Elementary and three other KCS elementary schools.

It may have been Fall Break, but on Tuesday morning students from Ball Camp Elementary School were hard at work on an engineering project.

Gathered in the school library, teams of 5th-graders were given 25 pipe cleaners and challenged to build the tallest possible free-standing structure.

While one team crafted a tree-shaped design with a rootlike base and a twisted trunk, other groups tried to make cube-shaped structures with stability to match their height.

While they worked, Holston Middle School teacher August Askins walked around the room, asking questions designed to promote creativity: Were there any limitations on how wide the structure could be? What modifications could be made to improve the design? Should the weight of the structure itself be more or less than the weight of its base?

The exercise was part of a new KCS program called Gear Up 4 STEM, which aims to connect younger students with careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Currently, the Gear Up camp is a pilot program offered at four schools, with a goal of increasing to 10 schools next year. Students participate during the weeks of Fall Break and Spring Break, along with two weeks during the summer.

Andrea Berry, Science and STEM Supervisor for KCS, said exposure to a particular career often drives a student’s interest in that line of work. The Gear Up camp not only gives students a chance to learn from industry professionals, but also to participate in work that mimics those jobs — such as the engineering project at Ball Camp.

“As teachers we get very focused on teaching our content during the school year, which is a great thing,” Berry said. “But while we have content instruction in the STEM camp, our focus is more on what career puts this content into action and what soft skills are needed in this career — such as creativity and collaboration — to really make it successful.”

Students at Gear Up 4 STEM camp work on a project to design a free-standing structure out of pipe cleaners.

The program was funded by a federal Education Innovation and Research grant, and draws not only on the expertise of teachers, but also of older students and industry partners.

At Ball Camp, Hardin Valley Academy sophomore Iris Li and Farragut High School sophomore Jerome Andrews acted as mentors, helping students think through problems and find solutions.

Li is planning to pursue a career as an aerospace engineer and said her older sister, who is studying computer science, was an inspiration. She’s hoping to play the same role for elementary students at Ball Camp.

“STEM is something that is more than just scientists and beakers and numbers, it’s about creativity and it’s something everyone can enjoy,” she said.

The Gear Up program also receives community support from local STEM-based companies. Storage Pug, which creates marketing and management software for self-storage businesses, is an industry partner at Cedar Bluff Elementary, helping students design a simple app to address issues at their school.

At Ball Camp, the business manager of engineering firm Innovative Design Inc., Kevin Fillers, talked to students about engineering applications in the world around them, such as bridges and buildings.

When Fillers talked about “the power of the triangle” in providing stability for buildings and infrastructure, 5th-grader Owen Vaughan asked why so many buildings appear to use square designs. If you think about it, Fillers pointed out, two triangles can be joined to form a square — a strategy that is often used in architecture and construction, even if it’s not visible.

In an interview, Vaughan said he liked building things with Lego bricks when he was younger, including a replica of the Eiffel Tower. Asked what he has learned at STEM camp, he cited the lesson about triangles and their power for holding structures together.

Ultimately, the chance to capture the imagination of young students and help them see the world in new ways are what the Gear Up camps are about. Askins, who is helping lead the sessions at Ball Camp, said she loves teaching and that students keep her going.

“Where else do you have the opportunity to help kids achieve their goals in life and have a positive impact on the future for all of us?” she said. “It sounds cheesy, but I believe it.”

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