Rockcastle County Middle School Team Wins Competition, Talks to Astronaut

A team of students from Rockcastle County Middle School took home first place in a machine-building contest for their heavy-lifting crane design. The competition was part of Eastern Kentucky University’s “From the Bluegrass to the Blue Marble: Systems in Space” program on January 11th.  The event also included a conversation with an astronaut as he orbited Earth aboard the International Space Station.

The winning team, from left to right: Jackson Cromer, 7th grade, Cameron Coy, 8th grade, Caleb Ballinger, 8th grade, and Ryan Martin, 8th grade.

The team competed with 160 students from 45 schools invited by EKU’s STEM-H Institute, an organization that focuses on college-readiness in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health.  Dr. Jaleh Rezaie, Associate Dean of Graduate Education and Research and Executive Director of EKU’s STEM-H Institute, said all the participants succeeded.  “Every one of them was proud, and should be proud, of their projects,” she said.

According to Rezaie, research shows that the number of students who could pursue STEM-H careers shrinks as they age, and that middle-school students are at a crucial crossroads.  “It’s very important to reach them and make sure that they realize the importance of these fields,” she said, “no matter what area they want to get into when they get to college.”  Indeed, she explained, a strong grasp of these fields of study opens doors for students, regardless of their chosen field.  “A lot of students when they come to college, they don’t have as many choices because they didn’t take appropriate courses in high school,” she said.  “That’s why we try to reach them as early as possible so they are prepared when they come to college.”

Caleb Ballinger, Cameron Coy, Jackson Cromer and Ryan Martin smiled as they demonstrated the way their crane worked.  A crank pulled fishing line over three pulleys, a spool, and a stationary peg, to raise and lower a cup filled with pennies.  Key ingredients included cardboard, pencils, duct tape, and 40 D batteries taped together to act as a counterweight. The materials they were allowed to use were determined by the competition’s rules, but that did not deter the team. “I feel like the limitations made us get a bit more creative than we would be otherwise,” Coy said.  Cromer agreed.  “It could’ve been easier, but we like a challenge.  And this was definitely a challenge.”

The competition was part of a day filled with activities that related to STEM-H fields.  The morning schedule centered around a NASA Downlink, where Tom Marshburn, M.D., an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, participated in a live video chat with students in EKU’s Hummel Planetarium.  The downlink was one of only six such conferences in the nation.

Cameron Coy, 8th grade, is considering a career that could take him to space.

Coy was chosen to ask a question based on his research and the essay he wrote.  “I’m very interested in space,” he said.  “I had a lot of prior knowledge about physics, and science in general, especially space.”  He appreciated Mashburn’s explanations, but also the way he answered students’ questions in zero gravity.  “He would flip the microphone,” Coy said. “And a coworker of his came through and did a flip through the camera actually, which was really neat to see.”  Coy predicts that he and his fellow students at the event might get their own chance to venture into space. “I especially think for the time I’m living in and growing up in, it’ll be a lot more common to be able to go into space regardless of your job as long as it’s something in science or mathematics, which is something I have a great interest in.”

Berea College’s GEAR UP Program partnered with several participating school districts to provide assistance with the event.  The program contributed supplies, staff for project supervision, and transportation to EKU.  GEAR UP works with school districts to ensure that students graduate from high school college-ready and prepared for college and career success.

The team from RCMS may not be ready for college just yet, but they had already overcome some adversity to win their competition.  They built their crane in the office of Cayci Mahaffey, GEAR UP Academic Specialist for RCMS, where an early design left its mark on the room.  “We initially had a lawnmower battery in here,” Coy said. “However, that spilled and destroyed our first box.”

“Battery acid is not good for cardboard,” said Comer. “It tends to eat away at it and destroy it.”

“And carpet,” Martin added.

“You should see Ms. Cayci’s floor,” said Comer.

“It took two science teachers and three janitors to help us clean that up,” Coy said.  The team persevered, though, and won first place.  “Our hearts were with this,” Coy said.