COLUMBUS, Ind. (AP) — Judging by Wesley Lack's wide-eyed enthusiasm, STEM Night at Smith Elementary School might as well have been Disney World.
The 7-year-old got to build a penny-filled boat from tinfoil. He got to see bulbs light up by riding a stationary bicycle as fast as he could. He even had a chance to fly paper airplanes in the hall.
But there was a lesson behind each activity, one that community sponsors hope will plant in children an appreciation for science that might someday grow into a career.
A crowd of about 400 people that consisted of about 250 Smith Elementary kids and their adult caretakers came to the school Dec. 6 for STEM Night, a one-day event featuring hands-on activities.
Last year, various Columbus schools competed with one another in a fundraising competition for Bowl for Kids Sake, the annual benefit to raise money for Big Brothers Big Sisters. The prize was that Cummins Inc. would bring its "Science, Technology, Engineering & Math" event, called STEM Night, to the school that raised the most money.
Smith Elementary won.
Ryan Larcom, who leads the community involvement team at Cummins Technical Center in Columbus, said Cummins considers part of its social responsibility a need to give back to the community to build the next generation of engineers, mathematicians, scientists and computer programmers.
He said the Cummins employees who helped run the 10 event stations benefit from opportunities like STEM Night, because teaching others reinforces the employees' unique talents and keeps them grounded in the needs of the community.
Meanwhile, children get to experience the exciting world of science, technology, engineering and math that is related to them in a fun way that feels something like an amusement park.
Larcom said Cummins chose to bring its services to elementary school students instead of older kids because kids are all about having fun when they're younger and are naturally curious about the world around them.
"It gets kids at least thinking about how things work," he told The Republic (http://bit.ly/ZDMweC ). "The purpose ... is to bring visibility and excitement around a career path that kids don't often consider when they get older."
Gene Hack, director of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.'s C4 program, said he hopes students who participated at Smith become interested enough in one of the featured fields that they seek more information. He said C4 can help even elementary school children begin mapping out a schooling path that leads to a lucrative career.
C4 provides career and technical education to high school students from 12 schools in Bartholomew, Brown, Decatur, Jackson and Johnson counties, with classes at Columbus East and North high schools plus the McDowell Adult Education Center.
Rooms at Smith Elementary School were a hive of activity during STEM Night, where children squealed in delight and adults listened attentively.
At the Balloon Race station, sixth-graders Breiana Burton and Regan Nichalson blew up balloons and raced them open-ended along a string in separate competitions against a Cummins worker.
The races were fun, of course, but they also taught the girls something about the principle of thrust.
The girls said they enjoyed the makeshift science experiments.
However, Burton said she still wants to be a doctor, and Nichalson wants to be a lawyer.
At another station, Cummins and C4 representatives helped students make paper planes.
The students then toed a line and tossed their planes to see how far they traveled before floating to the floor.
The station attendants then spoke with the students about the principle of lift and aerodynamics — and why their planes might have acted as they did during their flights.
A station that gave students an opportunity to make lip gloss from petroleum jelly, Kool-Aid and honey drew a long line of girls.
Students eagerly took turns cranking the wheels of a stationary bicycle that demonstrated the different levels of energy needed to light different kinds of bulbs, from the energy efficient LED bulb to the traditional incandescent bulb.
Still another station allowed students to shape aluminum foil into boats to see what kind would hold the most pennies before sinking. Ultimately, it was the boats with the widest bases and the best-shaped sides that performed best.
Larcom said event organizers hoped to attract about half of the school's 400 students, which means that goal was surpassed.
He said he hopes the event successfully emphasized the need for STEM education in schools in general.
Information from: The Republic, http://www.therepublic.com/