Middle school students win national engineering competition

By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T

News flash – middle school kids (seventh and eighth graders) from Our Lady Help of Christians School, Abington, took the grand prize at the 2011 National Engineers Week Future City Competition finals held in Washington D.C. Feb. 18-22. To do so they beat out 34 other regional championship teams from across the country. In all approximately 1,000 schools and 35,000 students competed in regional competitions to determine the Washington finalists.

The fact that OLHC won the Jan. 22 Philadelphia regional competition is not a news flash. In the past 15 years they have won the regional nine times and finished second the other six times. As a matter of fact this is their second grand prize win; they also took the big prize in 1999, when this year’s competitors were just toddlers. {{more}}

“I’m very excited and proud of our students, they really worked hard,” said OLHC principal Jack Bellantoni. He also gives credit to parents for their support, and to teacher Jane Ring, and volunteer mentors including SEPTA engineer Michael DiCamillo, parishioners Christine Krewson and Tom and Julie Gennaro.

“I really don’t know why Our Lady Help of Christians does so well,” said Ring, who has been the advisor for the group from the beginning. “Our kids have a tradition of loving science and math, and it is a wonderful opportunity to share science.”

The whole idea behind the Future City competition is to foster interest in a career in engineering or a related science, and according to Ring, it certainly has worked at OLHC.

One graduate of the school’s Future City team holds a doctorate and is working in the aerospace industry. Two others are working on their master’s degrees in engineering, and five students from four years ago are now entering college to pursue engineering degrees.

“I estimate 20-25 percent of the students go on to major in engineering or a related field,” Ring said.

This year at OLHC approximately 30 students turned out for the Future City team. Because it is a small school that meant most of the eighth grade and a good part of the seventh grade.

Each year Future City has an overall theme; this year it was “Providing a reliable and effective heath care product or system that improves a sick, injured or disabled patient’s quality of life and comfort.”

The OLHC students decided their city would be located in Haiti and be called Ville L’espoir, (French for City of Hope) and it would focus on helping people with Type II Diabetes. As a team they would have to first create their city on a computer through SIM software, and then create a three-dimensional model, spending no more than $100 for material. They would also have to write an essay explaining their theme, and finally a small team would act as presenters. At both the regional and finals professional engineers would rate their performance in all four areas.

All through the fall and up to the regional competition the students worked diligently on their city as Ring spanided them up into the area or areas where they inspanidually had the most expertise.

For the Washington finals at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill Hotel, only three presenters would be permitted, along with two alternates — although many other team members and their families went along to root them on.

Ring chose five students from the eighth grade: Elizabeth DeMarshall, Matthew Wilkinson and Alexandra Ryan as presenters; with Elizabeth Napierkowski and Kaitlyn Krewson as alternates.

While many other teams went sightseeing during off times, the OLHC students stayed behind, honing their presentation, with one notable exception: the entire school delegation attended an evening Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is an engineering marvel in and of itself.

Winning the grand prize was certainly a thrill, and further enhanced for the three presenters, who will receive a trip to the U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. this coming summer. But the real thrill was in the lesson learned.

“Creating Ville L’espoir was important to us because we wanted to give hope back to Haiti,” Ryan said. “We focused on the Corporal Works of Mercy, such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and sheltering the homeless.”

For Napierkowski, “My favorite part was building the model,” she said. “All the members worked hard, contributing their talents. It was a lot of fun and it turned out great.”

“Presenting our future city to the judges taught me the importance of speaking skills. These are skills that I can use for the rest of my life,” DeMarshal said.

Krewson said they put a lot of time into the research and writing the essay. “We put a lot of time and “Although it was challenging, we did have fun writing it,” she said.

“Creating a computer city is a unique experience” Wilkinson said. “We had to run many different scenarios and save only the ones that worked. We wouldn’t save a city until all the city planners decided it was ‘a city save.'”

He’s right. Teamwork is everything.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.