“We ended up having to figure out how to work as a team instead of by ourselves.”
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It takes a village to raise a child, so goes the proverb. But how many people does it take to build a baseball launcher? At Griffin Middle School in Smyrna, it’s students, parents, and teachers all working together.
In 2016, Griffin science teacher Melissa Barlow received an email from the school’s principal that immediately intrigued her. Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) and the Atlanta Braves were collaborating on a competition for students that combined STEM education and baseball. “Of course he got an immediate response; I’m all about STEM,” says Barlow. Middle school teams from Cobb County Schools and Atlanta Public Schools would build baseball launching devices during the 2016-2017 school year. The competition also included supporting activities developed by GTRI and Georgia Tech’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing (CEISMC) to extend learning beyond building the device.
Barlow and fellow science teacher Andrew Scotchlas garnered enough interest to put together two teams for the competition. It was a diverse group of students representing a wide range of talents and interests. There was Nabeel Faridi, leader of Team Scorchers. He’d recently moved to the U.S. from India, and in seventh grade was on the school’s robotics team. His favorite subjects are science, and especially math, “because it’s the kind of subject that you just get along with.”
Emily Crider’s favorite subject is ELA or English Language Arts. She likes to write poetry and wants to pursue a career as a pediatric emergency room nurse. She’s also good at math, so Mr. Scotchlas encouraged her to participate in the competition. Emily was hesitant at first. “I didn’t want to be the only girl, and then I found out some of my other friends were in it.”
GTRI physicists spent two months designing the launcher kits, which the teams received in the fall of 2016. There were no instructions, just a diagram, and parts—lots of parts—nuts and bolts, slabs of wood and metal. It wasn’t an easy kit to assemble, and that was the point: to challenge the students. They worked on the project twice a week after school for the entire school year, sometimes into the evening.
“They even were here on a Friday night, the Friday before spring break, calling their math teacher to ask her how to work out a problem,” recalls Barlow.
Constructing the launchers required teamwork among students from different grade levels. “A lot of eighth graders didn’t want to hang out with the sixth graders or seventh graders; they wanted to just do their own thing,” says Emily. “We ended up having to figure out how to work as a team instead of by ourselves.”
Emily also recruited a little outside help in the form of her father, Shane Crider. One day after school Emily came running out to her father’s truck. Crider remembers his daughter saying, “We have an emergency, can you come quick?” The team was having difficulty attaching a nut and bolt to the launcher. Crider’s maintenance and mechanical background came in handy.
Another parent, Tracey Santos, a long-time advocate of STEM education, adjusted her work schedule to support her son Duncan’s team every Wednesday. She helped the team with project management by creating a construction schedule on a whiteboard and showing the group “what it is to run a project and how you should be assigning roles and giving people responsibility and accountability.” Santos’ employer also sponsored team t-shirts and a post-competition celebration at The Varsity.
In May 2017, Nabeel and Emily, their team, teachers and supporters all gathered at Georgia Tech for the finale of the inaugural Braves STEM Competition. Teams brought their launchers, decorated in themes like Star Wars, to the Campus Recreation Center. After a 10-minute practice session, each group received three attempts to launch a baseball into a blue bucket. The launcher had altitude and elevation controls so students could try to hit the target by making multiple adjustments. Nabeel and Emily’s team came close to hitting the target a couple of times. During an oral presentation portion of the competition, a panel of judges evaluated students on their STEM literacy skills.
After a tough deliberation, judges chose Cobb County’s Cooper Middle School and their Star Wars launcher as the winners of the competition. Although his team didn’t win, Nabeel ultimately walked away with valuable skills. “I believe [the competition] helped me become more confident in myself as a team leader.”
Georgia Tech Connection