Math resource teacher Matt Goldrick stood on the second-story balcony and dropped small parachutes over a railing, two at a time, to see which would take longer to reach the ground.
The students who had made the parachutes cheered.
The test on Oct. 27 was at the end of the second meeting of STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — a new afterschool program at Chocachatti Elementary School. The once-a-month club was started by science resource teacher Ruth Markham, who is assisted by Goldrick. Both volunteer their time.
"There's just not enough time in the day to do all the topics on science," Goldrick said. "This gives them the opportunity to explore more topics in science."
Markham had recently gone to a state science conference and was appalled to learn how low the United States ranks in science education. "It's so important to start them young," she said. "That is why elementary science education should be of unprecedented importance and not optional."
The STEM Club was her response.
"This is something I've always wanted to do," she said. The club will focus on engineering, since, Markham explained, a significant percentage of U.S. engineers come from outside the country. "We're just not turning them out," she said.
The students for this group were invited to join from a group of students showing aptitudes for science and math. There are 25 members, all fifth-graders.
The first meeting's activity was designing paper airplanes. The most recent one had the students designing parachutes from their choice of materials, including plastic, coffee filters, string, fishing line, tape and hole re-enforcers.
The students were pretty much on their own.
"We try not to give too much direction," Markham said. "Students now really don't have much opportunity to think for themselves. I continue to ask questions or (ask them) how can they find the answers. To compete in the global economy, they're going to have to do that, think critically, analyze, problem solve, synthesize, all of those, higher-level thinking."
Vanessa Lopez and Jaden Becsenesco, both 10, teamed to make a double-layer coffee filter parachute. "I like science and math and technology and building stuff and I like to be into that," Vanessa said, explaining why she wanted to be in the club.
Jaden said he joined STEM "because I decided that since I like science and math so much this would be a very good club for me." Vanessa and Jaden's parachute won in the first round, but they were out-floated in the second one.
Mikayla Beers, 11, Katie Theall, 10, and Hannah Ingram, 10, used plastic, tape, brads and fishing line to make their parachute..
Katie wanted to try something new. She joined, she said, because "it sounds like fun with the technology and engineering and I've never been in a club, so I thought I'd try one. It is actually a lot of fun."
The winning parachute was a design created by Tommy McCane, Richie Hopper, Brooke Fielder and Matthew Bennett, all 10. Their creation had a rubber band between the string and a washer. "I was thinking it'd make it longer," Richie said, suspecting it would somehow act against gravity.
STEM will have another meeting in about three weeks. "Next time when we make bridges, I thought it would be cool to have the kids make their bridges span the pond outside the Science Lab," Markham said. "That should be interesting."
She is seeking materials for the bridge-building. Right now STEM is funded through parent donation, teacher volunteering and science resource lab supplies. Markham is hoping to write a grant for funding, but welcomes donations from the community.
In the meantime, she said: "We're having fun. I love it when they're thinking and analyzing and engaged and taking it to another level."