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Engineering Fun for Kids

April 5, 2005 — Some 2,200 fifth- and sixth-grade students will build towers made of drinking straws, catapult jumbo marshmallows and design clay fish April 11-15 as the University of Utah College of Engineering holds its annual Elementary Engineering Week.

“This is a great opportunity for elementary students to visit the university and become an engineer for the day,” says Patrick Tresco, a professor of bioengineering and the College of Engineering’s associate dean for academic affairs.

About 450 students are registered to attend each day of the program, which will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the ballroom of the Olpin Union Building. News media are invited to cover Elementary Engineering Week, which is not open to the general public.

This year’s activities include:

  • Fish Blitz Contest. “The purpose of this contest is to build a fish out of clay, which will move either quickly or slowly when pulled by a weight through a tank of water,” says Caitlin Whitaker, College of Engineering outreach and diversity coordinator, and organizer of Elementary Engineering Week. “The students learn how changing the shape of an object in turn changes its movement through water. The fastest and slowest fish will receive prizes during each rotation. Each day, special prizes will also be awarded to the fastest and slowest fish of the entire day.”
  • Straw Structures Contest. The students will use drinking straws, paper clips and tape to build towers that are as tall as possible and can still withstand wind gusts. This activity teaches some concepts that civil engineers have to consider when designing structures, such as function, stability, limited resources and safety. Prizes will be awarded for tallest towers.
  • Catapult Contest. “Each elementary school class is asked to bring a small, working catapult that they will demonstrate during the event,” Whitaker says. “The catapults are designed to launch a jumbo marshmallow at a target: An aluminum pie tin set on the ground 12 feet from the starting line.” Prizes will be awarded to teams successful at hitting the target.

Students participating in Elementary Engineering Week are from the Salt Lake, Granite, Jordan and Davis school districts, and from two private schools.

The event, enormously popular for several years, allows fifth- and sixth-grade students to visit campus and experience first-hand the excitement and challenge of tackling engineering design problems.

For many students, this will be their first trip to the University of Utah, providing them with an exciting glimpse of higher education. The program reinforces problem solving skills, as well as strong positive feelings for education, especially math and science.

Thanks to a $10,000 contribution from ConocoPhillips, each participating school will receive a cash prize to be used for classroom math and science teaching tools.