All eyes focused on the footlong papier-mache mouse as it crawled in front of Jena Phillips’ eighth-grade gifted-science class at Bogle Junior High School in Chandler.
The mouse was a battery-driven toy, handmade by three girls in the class, which participated in an eight-week mentoring project called A World in Motion, intended to promote science and math through hands-on problem solving.
It was showtime.
Teams competed in a demonstration of their toys to four engineer judges. Other retired engineers had visited the classroom as volunteers once a week to guide students as they designed a motorized toy suitable for girls ages 6-10.
Students did market research, created a make-believe company, drew a prototype, tested designs, learned about torque, made the toy and gave sales presentations last week. The chassis of the motorized toys were assembled from kits donated by General Motors.
The mouse’s creators won the competition, and mock gold medals were draped, Olympic-style, on team members Kristen Miner, Lasya Anantuni and Samantha Kamath. The Sun Lakes Rotary Club donated the medals.
The winning team’s mouse was the centerpiece of a game, “Catch the Mouse,” created by their mock company, Toy Ride Inc.
While other students had come up with pink cars, glittery entries and Barbie-theme toys, the winning team bucked stereotypes.
“You take your daughter to the toy store, and everything is pink and purple and princesses,” Samantha told the class. “That is overused. Not all girls are girly girls.”
After class, Samantha described what the project had taught her.
“I learned how to work with a group and to get a huge project done on a deadline,” she said. “Also, I learned more about physics in general, and also to make a presentation appealing.”
Her teammate Lasya said she learned to find what gear ratio was best for propelling the mouse 3 meters within three seconds. The toys were required to perform that feat, to crawl up a 15-degree slope in two seconds or to climb a 30-degree slope.
“It was fun,” Lasya said. “You’re selling toys, so we learned about marketing and advertising.”
The mentors also included parents and engineering students from Arizona State University. The girls said the help they received in designing the toy was invaluable.
“Whenever we had a question about gear ratio or what weight would do to the chassis or the speed of it, they had all the answers,” Lasya said.
The engineers more often answered a question with a question of their own to encourage the students to arrive at their own answers, said Bill Klein, a former Texas Instruments electrical engineer and technical adviser to the program.
“We give guidance and encourage them to think to solve problems,” he said.
The program was started by the Society of Automotive Engineers more than two decades ago to promote engineering when a shortage of engineers and technicians loomed. The society provides training for teachers and volunteers and lesson plans in line with state requirements.
“This school year … we’ll reach close to 2,000 students from Surprise to Queen Creek to Maricopa,” Klein said. “They’re scattered all over. We have programs in kindergarten through eighth grade.”
Phillips, the teacher, said that besides learning about technical topics, such as gears, and soft skills, such as compromise, the students learned perseverance.
“They learned how to test and go back and try again,” she said. “And to work with a timeline. The deadline was the hardest. They thought they had everything ready to go, and at the last minute, they had problems sneak up on them.”
Steve Whitson, among the judges at the competition and a retired Honeywell engineer, enjoys watching the students work.
“I love seeing young kids solve engineering problems,” Whitson said. “There’s always a lot of compromise in the design between performance and cost and looks. What you make may be pretty, but it’s too heavy.”
Don Robins, a mechanical engineer who worked at GM, praised the program.
“Students learn that math and science can be a lot of fun and that a career in engineering can be a rewarding profession.”