~ Story and photos by Adriene Koett-Cronn

Gummy bears, marshmallows, and dry pasta were just some of the building materials used to create earthquake-proof structures at the SMILE Program’s 2016 Middle School Challenge and College Connection Days, held March 10–11 and March 17-18.

More than 250 middle school students from SMILE clubs across the state attended the two-day events. The students put their creativity and engineering skills to the test building structures that were at least 50 cm tall and could withstand a simulated Magnitude 10.0 earthquake on a shake table designed and built by three Oregon State University Mechanical Engineering students.

The students were not only tasked with designing the structures, but they also had to carefully plan out which materials they would need and keep within a budget. Who knew ten sticks of fettuccine would cost $10,000? These students did. And, keeping on budget, and on task, was all part of the challenge.

Several Oregon State University students volunteered to work as team mentors with the middle school students and provided guidance and encouragement as they worked to meet the goals of the Challenge. The first day of the event was at Western Oregon University. Besides the engineering challenge, students ate in the WOU cafeteria and stayed in the Oregon Military Academy.

The following day, students got another slice of college life during the College Connection Day at Oregon State University. They spent the day touring the campus, visiting bioenergy and engineering labs, participating in bioenergy experiments and learning about STEM careers and college life.

Research indicates events like the Challenge and Connection Days are vital to inspiring success and showing students that college and STEM-based careers can be in their future. Nora Utevsky, a program coordinator with SMILE said of the experience, “It is so exciting to watch students engage in engineering while building their structures, then dive into different science activities across OSU’s campus. You can almost see them begin to picture themselves in college and along various STEM career paths.” The SMILE Program provides learning opportunities in the fields of science and math to underrepresented and educationally underserved students.

See the Middle School Challenge photo book for more images of the event.