By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Desk
This had been the thorn in the competitors’ side.
The big pickle.
The obstacle that caused utter vexation, then perplexed and stopped the robots that dared to weave their way along the maze-like course during Saturday’s International Christian STEM competition on the Grand Canyon University campus.
So when seventh graders Zac O’Leary and Miles Hamel remotely guided their bot through the competition course, and their bot coiled up to this pickle of an obstacle – an otherwise innocent-looking ramp – they were more than worried, even if you didn’t know it maybe not.
Cool as cucumbers, the Stoneybrooke Christian School contestants walked alongside their robot as it conquered the ramp, no problem.
The room filled with spectators erupted in cheers.
What they didn’t know was that O’Leary and Hamel weren’t sure their robot, dubbed Sticky Bot, would even make it onto the competition floor. A few hours before, they had to install a new engine.
“I kinda freaked out,” Hamel said as they decompressed after their competitive round at the University’s Sunset Auditorium.
“It was scary. My legs are shaking,” O’Leary said.
He and Hamel — they are from San Juan Capistrano, Calif. — were just two of more than 70 middle and high school students from nine Christian schools in five states who were at GCU on Saturday for the first International Christian STEM Competition.
“This is the first international STEM competition of its kind for Christian schools that we know of,” said Corinne ArazaSenior STEM Outreach Project Director for GCU’s K12 Educational Development.
The competition lasted two years for GCU, which partnered with the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) to make this event happen.
It was about three years ago when the president of the GCU Brian Müller was watching the FIRST Robotics competition, held on the University campus, which he thought GCU might hold something similar for Christian schools. They don’t always have the funding to support STEM programs as much as they would like.
“Often Christian schools, when it comes to rigorous curricula, are seen as inferior,” Araza said. But like Mueller and Dr. Larry TaylorPresident of ASCI, said: “We have to change that.”
GCU itself has dug in when it comes to STEM education. It opened the College of Science, Engineering, and Technology in 2014, launched the Computer Science and Computing programs the same year, then added engineering programs a year later. The University aims to be at the forefront of STEM education as it prepares students to fill a void in STEM jobs and attract leading companies to the state.
Events such as the International Christian STEM Competition help schools take this step.
“We want to support Christian school education across the United States and beyond, and this was an opportunity to do so,” Araza said.
Her and Marni LandryK12 Outreach and STEM Project Director at GCU, met biweekly with ACSI Student Events Managers to provide professional development for teachers, participate in divisional STEM competitions, and work one-on-one with teachers and students in the field.
GCU students also mentored competitors.
For one thing, faculty and technology students at the University gave middle and high school competitors a task last fall. When they had questions, they could connect with GCU students through a Slack channel (a team messaging app), said Rob LoyResponsible for technology programs.
GCU students have also helped in other ways.
“We designed the course, we wrote the rubric, we wrote the rules, we did it all,” president of the GCU Robotics Club Jared Smith said of the club’s contribution to the robotics part of the competition.
The club drew inspiration from some of the college-level VEX events it attends to design this year’s robotics challenge. The ramp, from a distance, was the tyrannical obstacle of the day for the teams.
The event required two years of preparation. “To see this come to fruition is very exciting,” Smidt said.
Competitors had to place in divisional competitions in Florida, Texas, California, Arizona and Maryland to qualify for Saturday’s international event, where they took on challenges not only in robotics but also in aerospace glider, in cybersecurity/capture the flag, computer coding and mechanical slingshot.
Next to the robotics area, an all-female team from Summit Christian School in Cedar Park, Texas, tossed purple-colored plastic Easter eggs into buckets at various spots on the floor during the mechanical slingshot competition .
Their launcher didn’t quite look like the other teams’ rubber band launchers.
“We haven’t seen any other launcher that looks like this. It’s awesome,” major judge and GCU pre-med volunteer Jason Freeman told the team. “He had this really interesting design. It looked like a mortar with a cannon instead of a regular slingshot. It was pretty cool.
What the Canyon Christian Schools Consortium scholar said he loved about the contest was “the designs that some of these kids had, as well as their enthusiasm for it. Seeing them deliberate, ‘Oh! Are we going for that next shot? Do we save what we have? It was a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of creativity.
“We did well,” grade 11 student at Summit Christian School Muthoni O’Kubo said of his team’s mechanical performance. “We just had to find…”
“…Our sweet spot,” added his teammate Danielle Davisa senior who competed with O’Kubo and junior Christine Lee. ” Everything went very well. It didn’t matter what had happened. Just that we knew God was in charge.
Satvik Kommireddy from Alta Loma Christian School in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., also looked for the right spot in the aerospace glider event, staring at the empty space in front of him and pulling a rubber band where his team’s glider was perched.
“It’s the farthest he’s ever gone,” said the Alta Loma language arts teacher Jennifer Palmstunned as the team’s glider soared into the air.
Megan IlertsenACSI Student Activities Coordinator, was also amazed at the culmination of her organization’s work with GCU – a STEM event focused on Christian schools that would not have become a reality without its partnership with the University.
“We needed experts in the field…otherwise this wouldn’t have happened,” Ilertsen said.
ACSI Student Activities, for six decades, has been organizing music festivals, speeches, art festivals and more for Christian schools. But the International Christian STEM Competition is the first big push into science, technology, engineering, and math.
“We are excited about this new event as I really think it supports our schools in how they need to shift their educational standards and practices – towards technology and STEM,” she said.
“It’s an opportunity to tell the world that STEM matters, and it’s a cool thing to be a part of it,” added ACSI’s student activities coordinator. Jana Csehy.
Ilertsen and Csehy said the contest is a way to embrace a different population of students in a way the organization hasn’t been able to before so these students can “start thinking about their future as ministers in a different profession,” Ilertsen said.
Araza is all about bringing students to the table when it comes to STEM, recalling a central message in the competition launch worship service: “We have spoken, if your calling is in the area of STEM , pursue it, because God wants you to.
Ultimately, Csehy said, “STEM is another area where we want Christians to serve.”
GCU Senior Writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at 602-639-7901 or [email protected].
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