By Emma Daniels, AmeriCorps member serving on the Bank of America team at Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot K-8 School

Design Challenge: use tape, brown paper bags, paper plates, string, and cups to make a parachute. You have 17 minutes.


Although this scenario sounds like an episode of Project Runway, it’s actually a challenge that students at Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot K-8 School recently performed. The 4th and 5th-grade students in my after school group have science enrichment every afternoon. This often entails them putting on their engineering hats, as they are challenged to create marshmallow catapults and newspaper skyscrapers and paper-plate parachutes.

On parachute day the timer was set and the students worked on their projects with gusto. Groups worked on parachutes, each in different corners of the room, committed to creating parachutes with enough drag--the students’ word of the day, meaning “something that makes action more difficult.” The goal was to “save Bobby Shmurda,” a small plastic figurine that the students after their favorite hip-hop artist.

Some students decided to cut holes in the paper plate to fit a brown bag that would fill up like a hot air balloon. Others created a paper cup crib connected to a paper plate with string to rock baby Bobby all the way to the ground.

We concluded the day with a grand parachute test. Would Bobby survive the six-foot drop unscathed? Ceci* and Iyana* each made their own parachute. Others partnered up; two boys made up the team “Soft Cushions.” Another three made up “Mama’s Boys.”

In a moment of inspiration, I deemed myself Ryan Seacrest, and the three other AmeriCorps members in the room were our panel of stars. In my creative (and/or end-of-the-day-tired) state, Mr. Jay was Randy Jackson, Ms. Allison was Paula Abdul, and Ms. S was Simon Cowell. (I later realized many of the students had probably never seen my version of American Idol, most of them are probably more used to Nicki Minaj than Paula as their judge of choice. But I digress.)

The judging began.

Using a scale of 1 to 10, the judges rated the students’ work on how slowly the parachute fell to the ground and whether or not the plastic figurine made a noise when he hit the linoleum.

Iyana ended up with the highest score: an overall 28! She even summoned the signature fake-cry from “Paula” who was overwhelmingly impressed with her project’s drag.

And there is nothing like the joy I feel every day looking at my students’ work during our extended day: anyone can be an engineer.

Also, Paula Abdul references are still relevant.

At least sometimes.


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