Caltech InnoWorks Shows Middle School Students the Fun Side of Science and Engineering

On a hot Pasadena summer afternoon, a group of middle school students looked up with excitement, waiting for their teammates and mentors to drop their engineering projects over a railing four floors up. In the minutes that followed, some of the projects crashed before their eyes, while others gently landed with the help of well-designed parachutes.

That was the scene last Tuesday during the egg-drop competition—the afternoon project at the inaugural Caltech InnoWorks Summer Science Camp at Pasadena City College. The week-long program, which hosted 22 local middle school students for a week of hands-on science and engineering learning, was organized by Caltech InnoWorks, a chapter of the national organization with the slogan "By Students, For Students." The organization aims to get underserved middle school students more interested in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine.

"We try not to do too much classroom teaching but rather have each mentor work with three students—a ratio you never get in classrooms," said Nikita Sinha, student director of the Caltech InnoWorks chapter and a rising senior at Caltech. "The activities also relate to the students' daily lives, so the program takes science out of a textbook and makes it a lot more interesting and relevant."

Indeed, the egg-drop lesson was designed to teach the students about gravity and various ways of dissipating the energy of an impact by allowing them to experiment. Using toothpicks, cotton balls, tissue paper, cardboard, string, Styrofoam peanuts, pipe cleaners, and, of course, duct tape, the middle schoolers designed and built contraptions that they hoped would create enough wind resistance and absorb enough energy to prevent their team's precious egg from a crack-inducing landing.

Earlier that day, they had tried their hand at bridge building while learning about structural engineering and the strength of trusses. After viewing multiple examples of strong bridges, student teams competed to build a popsicle-stick-bridge that could bear the largest load of sand.

In the end, a team nicknamed "Like a Boss" won that challenge. Describing the team's design, 12-year-old Julio Partida of Eliot Middle School said, "There were a bunch of triangles, and the triangles helped support the bridge."

When asked about the tradeoff of coming to camp versus staying at home for the week, teammate Mayte Garcia of Marshall Fundamental High School said, "It saves me from a lot of boredom. It's fun to do all of these activities."

The curriculum for the week, called "Making Sense of Senses," was designed by college students from the national InnoWorks program with some additional lessons contributed by the Caltech chapter. The camp was offered entirely free-of-charge to participants who had to apply to attend. Funding for the camp was provided by the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, the George W. Housner Endowed Student Discovery Fund, the Student Investment Fund, and the Associated Students of the California Institute of Technology. Proceeds from an on-campus fundraiser were also matched by SBB Research Group.

At the end of the week, all of the students received trophies and T-shirts for their hard work. One of the participants, 12-year-old Tyler Voner, described the experience as "kind of like a once-in-a-lifetime chance."

Student mentors for the camp include Caltech undergraduates Prastuti Singh, Tony Wu, Eric Wang, Iryna Butsky, Juan Pablo Ocampo, Conway Xu, and Monisha Dilip, as well as recent Caltech graduate David Carrega. InnoWorks student board members include director Nikita Sinha, deputy directors Marvin Gee and Debra Tsai, funding officer Misha Raffiee, logistics officer Pallavi Bugga, and recruiting officers Arpit Panda and Sandhya Chandrasekaran, as well as graduate student advisor Arnav Mehta. Monisha Dilip and Conway Xu also served as curriculum officers. 

About the photo: InnoWorks mentor and recent Caltech graduate David Carrega (left) helps middle school student Mayte Garcia (right) prepare her team's creation for the egg-drop challenge.