Science contest gives kids opportunity to shine

You might have seen them on Friday–hundreds of young students running around the PSU campus, smiling, laughing and learning.

You might have seen them on Friday–hundreds of young students running around the PSU campus, smiling, laughing and learning.

Close to 300 middle school and high school students visited Portland State and the Peter W. Stott Center to participate at the annual Math, Engineering and Science Achievement (MESA) Day event and competition.

Oregon MESA is a pre-college academic program housed at the PSU Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science. MESA started in 1970 in California and spread to seven other states. Oregon has had a MESA program for 18 years.

“This is the cumulating event for the students. They work all year round on things. They get really excited,” MESA Program Director David Coronado said. “A lot of these students have never won an award from school in the past, because traditionally, academically, they haven’t done very well. So we are issuing them an award for doing something really great.”

The kids, representing 13 local middle schools and high schools, built balsa wood bridges, made wind-powered boats and constructed trebuchets.

The design and use of these trebuchets, similar to catapults, was the main competition of the day. Around 70 teams built their own trebuchet out of plastic piping, string and weights, and used them to launch hacky sacks at targets marked on the Stott Center gymnasium floor.

More than just fun and games

The program is designed to mold future scientists out of students who might not normally get the opportunity to pursue a career in science. MESA encourages minority, women and underprivileged students to study engineering and other sciences.

Coronado knows the benefits of the MESA program first hand. As a low-income middle school student in Pomona, Calif. years ago, Coronado was in MESA.

His positive experiences helped him to become the first in his family to graduate from college, which eventually led him to his current position as director of the program in Oregon. Through his experiences in MESA, Coronado said he has found a strong commitment to the program.

“I’m actually very well devoted to our work over here,” Coronado said. “I have a strong passion for what we do.”

Seeing the work pay off

On their website, MESA states that 92 percent of its students pursue a college education. Many PSU students volunteered at MESA Day–close to 35 of the 55 volunteers are PSU students, Coronado estimated.

One PSU volunteer, Kelly Baker, said she has tutored young students before, but the hands-on nature of MESA is more fun. Baker worked at a scavenger hunt booth, which had the kids run around the university and complete math problems based on PSU landmarks.

Baker said she did not have an event like this when she was growing up but she would have enjoyed it if she did. Her experience helping the kids has been rewarding, she said.

“I think it’s cool that it’s not just presentations on stuff,” Baker said about the variety of activities presented for the kids. “It keeps them entertained so they are not just sitting around watching people do presentations.”

Compete and learn

Representatives from Oregon Health and Science University, Intel, IBM and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) were on hand at MESA Day to teach the kids about science.

Brian Hamilton, a volunteer with OMSI, was there to recruit young volunteers and participants for the museum’s youth program. He said that when he visits high schools, only about a third of the students are interested in what he has to say, but at MESA Day he finds they are more involved.

Exposing children to math and science is important for their future, he said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

Near the end of MESA Day, students and teachers filled the bleachers in the gymnasium to receive awards and recognition for their hard work. Coronado said he wanted to make sure no one left empty handed, even if they didn’t officially receive an award.

“It’s more important that they get excited and are exposed to something new,” he said.

The winners

Justin Adkins and Henry Roberts from Hosford Middle School won the top prize of the day: an all-expense paid trip to the National MESA competition in Maryland. They won for building and presenting their work on a trebuchet they created called “The Mutilator.”

After the awards classmates and teachers surrounded Justin and Henry, all of whom wanted to congratulate the pair.

“It’s so awesome,” Justin said about winning the prize. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”

MESA Day is a place that students can learn to work together in a fun and comfortable environment, Coronado said. Those are the experiences he had in MESA and his goal is to give that to the kids in the program now.

“We are always trying to keep them actively engaged in the program so they see this is a comfort zone as well as a place they can learn and feel comfortable learning,” Coronado said. “If they want to be a nerd in a sense, it’s a safe environment.”