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Carmen Olsen lines up a laser pointed into a wind tunnel as her science fair partner, Erin Hunt, looks on. Both girls are in sixth grade and attend Louisa Boren STEM K-8. (Lisa Stiffler / GeekWire)
Carmen Olsen lines up a laser pointed into a wind tunnel as her science fair partner, Erin Hunt, looks on. Both girls are in sixth grade and attend Louisa Boren STEM K-8. (Lisa Stiffler / GeekWire)

If you’ve been to a school science fair in the last decade or two, you already know that they’ve moved well beyond the era of sloppily erupting papier-mâché volcanoes in the style of Peter Brady.

Even so, one might not expect to see forward-mounted parachutes designed to decelerate the fall of a NASA spacecraft landing on Mars, or a filtration attachment for lawn mowers to capture carbon particulates and reduce air pollution. But those are just two of the innovative projects created this year by sixth-grade students from West Seattle’s Louisa Boren STEM K-8 school.

It was only four years ago that the school became a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) focused school, and this is the first year that the school has grown to include sixth graders.

Next week, Boren STEM K-8 is making its debut at the Seattle Public School District’s middle school science and engineering fair, which is being held at the Museum of Flight. Five teams from the school — including seven girls and one boy — are competing in a science showdown that will draw about 150 teams from across the 52,000-student district.

Anxious students were prepping last week for Boren STEM K-8’s school science fair, at which 16 exhibits competed for the five spots at the upcoming district contest.

Among the contenders were Carmen Olsen and Erin Hunt with a project called: “Which Would You Live In? A Study of Four Common Architectural Home Designs in an Experimental Wind Tunnel.”

Last year the girls were captivated by experiments testing fluid dynamics by measuring the speed of differently-shaped objects sinking inside columns of water.

Sixth-grade student Bree Hopkins explains her Forward-Deployed Mars Lander Decelerator, which is intended to be deployed early in the descent to reduce acceleration throughout the journey to the planet’s surface. Hopkins’ teacher, Craig Parsley, is encouraging her to submit the design to NASA through their student program. (Lisa Stiffler / GeekWire)
Sixth-grade student Bree Hopkins explains her Forward-Deployed Mars Lander Decelerator, which is intended to be deployed early in the descent to reduce acceleration throughout the journey to the planet’s surface. Hopkins’ teacher, Craig Parsley, is encouraging her to submit the design to NASA through their student program. (Lisa Stiffler / GeekWire)

“They were enthralled by it,” said sixth-grade teacher Craig Parsley. This year he taught them about architectural design, which got them excited to test different building styles in hurricanes.

Parsley considered improvising the test using a large fan, but quickly decided an actual wind tunnel would be so much better. With the help of the school’s liaison for community outreach, they connected with Seattle-based engineering firm McKinstry to see if they’d be willing to help.

“We’re passionate about supporting STEM in the classroom,” said Michael Frank, director of engineering for McKinstry, during a recent visit to the school. Colleagues were eager to lend a hand. “You bring up an opportunity like that,” he said, “and it’s like prairie dogs popping up saying, ‘I’ll do it, I’ll do it.’”

So McKinstry, with support from local supplier Dorse, built and donated to the school a wind tunnel measuring 24 feet long and 20 inches in diameter, complete with a viewing window. The tunnel easily separates into sections for putting test items into the structure. Parsley and his students assembled and did the wiring for the tunnel.

Parsley helps Hunt measure the wind speed using a thermal-anemometer that was purchased from Boeing Surplus in the 1970s. Parsley prefers analogue devices when possible to give students a better understanding of how instruments work.
Parsley helps Erin Hunt measure the wind speed using a thermal-anemometer that was purchased from Boeing Surplus in the 1970s. Parsley prefers analogue devices when possible to give students a better understanding of how instruments work.

Carmen and Erin built four model houses that each measured 80-cubic inches: a saltbox-style house with a long, sloping roof on one side, an A-frame house, a boxy-square apartment building and a geodesic dome. On to each structure they pasted a ruler with millimeter measurements. They designed an experimental model in which a laser mounted on a tripod points through the wind-tunnel window onto the ruler. The girls were able to measure the amount that each building deflected in the wind according to where the laser light shifted during the test.

In a demonstration of the set up, the girls lined up the apartment-style building with the laser and flipped on the wind.

They slowly raised the speed from 400 feet per minute. 500. 1,000. The building began to twist. 2,000. 2,600 feet per minute.

“It moved again!” said Erin, peering through the window and watching the building deflect in the faux natural disaster.

“If you’re in a hurricane and you’re in an apartment,” Carmen said, “you should get out of there.”

Parsley, who has been teaching for 16 years, loves giving students the chance to do hands-on learning in science and engineering.

“If you put the material and tools in the hands of children, and you give them direction on theory, they’ll figure it out,” he said. “They really do.”

Nyjel Sebastian, a sixth grader, won the engineering category at the Louisa Boren STEM K-8 science fair for his experiments in which he tried to create a low-cost fertilizer to boost food production using urine and fire ash for ingredients. (Lisa Stiffler / GeekWire)
Nyjel Sebastian, a sixth grader, won the engineering category at the Louisa Boren STEM K-8 science fair for his efforts to create an inexpensive fertilizer using urine and ash. He’ll be competing next week at the district-wide science fair for middle school students. (Lisa Stiffler / GeekWire)

Another student wanted to test the effect of earthquakes on buildings, so Parsley helped her assemble an earthquake simulator out of an old textile spinning machine that he’d long been storing in his basement.

He helps the kids use tools including jigsaws, orbital sanders and power drills to create their projects. Parsley likes providing instruction in which kids learn to use physical tools alongside lessons in mathematics and headier scientific principles. He tries to incorporate required curriculum with experiments and problem solving.

In an age where there is so much focus on testing “we turn the standards into an opportunity to explore your passions,” he said.

And the pursuit of passions can pay off: The girls who were inspired to do the wind tunnel-tests won their school fair in the science category.

A student named Nyjel Sebastian won the engineering category for experiments in which he tried to create a low-cost fertilizer to boost food production using urine and fire ash for ingredients.

The other three Boren STEM K-8 teams going to the district competition include:

  • Evalinn Kas and Nita Han, who conducted a water-quality study along West Seattle’s Longfellow Creek.
  • Katya Fox and Raeya Logue with experiments examining the hydrodynamic forces affecting fish swimming in fresh versus salt water.
  • And Eva Herdener who built the filter that attaches to lawn mowers and captures carbon particulate matter.

The judges at the district fair will award a variety of prizes in either science or engineering including best overall, most original, best overall environmental sustainability, best aeronautics and most likely to be patented.

A creative design that didn’t make the final five was a Kevlar-reinforced sock that two girls fabricated to prevent lacerations caused by soccer cleats. They tested the product using a hunk of ham in place of a human shin. The Kevlar sock proved 100-percent effective in preventing cuts.

“This is a model for the way science should be taught in the future,” Parsley said. “Let their ideas grow organically and let the theory guide their thinking. It’s through their own passion that they develop a love of science.”

UPDATE: Carmen Olsen and Erin Hunt won “best overall” for sixth grade for their wind-tunnel project at the Seattle Public School district’s middle school science and engineering fair last night. Three of the other five teams from Boren STEM K-8 also won awards at the event, which was expected to draw about 150 contestants.

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