Launching bottle rockets

Sixth graders get taste of engineering

This past Tuesday, over 300 students from all 11 sixth grade classes at public, private, and charter schools in Hoboken gathered at the Canavan Arena on the Stevens Institute of Technology campus for a day of fun, teamwork, and bottle rockets.
The first annual STEM-a-thon, organized in conjunction with the Hoboken Family Alliance, sought to show Hoboken sixth graders how enjoyable science, technology, engineering, and math can be, in hopes of inspiring them to pursue these fields at Stevens or elsewhere when college and adulthood arrive.
Students broke up into teams and participated in a number of challenges, including building a stable structure out of flimsy materials like straws. After the activities were complete, all of the students were treated to pizza and ice cream parties donated by local restaurants Basile’s, Ben and Jerry’s, Benny Tudino’s, City Bistro, Dozzino, Margherita’s, Napoli’s, Panello’s, Rita’s Italian Ice, Slider Street and Uptown Pizzeria.

Fun with a side of learning

Based on the reaction of the students, the event was a resounding success.
“It was more fun than I ever thought it would be,” said Sara Leong, a sixth grader at Elysian Charter School.
All Saints Episcopal Day School sixth grader Sam May agreed. “I like a lot of the stuff that STEM does because I really like science and math,” he said. “I’ve never been to a STEM thing before but this has been a lot of fun.”
Leong was surprised by how much the challenges required real engineering skills. “They really involved building things and trying different solutions and thinking about problems,” she said.

“It was more fun than I ever thought it would be.”–Sara Leong
Leong’s father is an engineer, and she said she hoped to become an inventor when she grows up. “I like making things new,” she explained.
The clear favorite exercise of the day was launching water-powered bottle rockets on the lawn behind Canavan Arena. The students used cardboard to customize their rockets in hopes of maximizing how long they stayed in the air and how far they fell from the launch zone.
“Our group redesigned our rocket using a lot of things that you’d see on a regular rocket like different sized fins, a really big head, and a skirt,” said May. “We thought that that would make it launch farther and it did.”
For Leong, the rockets were a spot lesson in Newtonian mechanics.
“At first we put more things on top of the cone, and it went slower,” she said. “Then when we took them off it went much faster.”
Another popular challenge was called “Toxic Popcorn.” “You have two buckets,” explained May, “one of them has popcorn in it and there’s a big hula hoop and you have to make something that will lift the bucket with the popcorn and tip the popcorn into the other bucket without spilling any and without any of your body parts going inside the hula hoop.”
The only items that could be used to lift the bucket were pieces of rope and a
bicycle tube.
“We’d all pull to stretch [the tube] out,” said May, “and then it would stretch out around the popcorn bucket and we’d tighten it and then we lifted it up and we handed the ropes to the person on the other side and he tipped it in.”
The popcorn exercise taught Leong a lesson about working together with peers in a cooperative group setting.
“If just some of the people contribute, it’s not enough to solve the problem,” she said.

How STEM-a-thon was born

The idea for STEM-a-thon was born when the Hoboken Family Alliance (HFA) — a non-profit group providing services and activities for local children and families — reached out to Hoboken’s public and private schools about the possibility of organizing a citywide school science event.
The HFA brought in Stevens, which graciously offered to provide space for the proceedings in its gymnasium, along with the expertise of its little-known Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education.
CIESE, as it is known, is a special internal program at Stevens dedicated to developing science and math curriculum and professional development for K-12 schools.
“As one of the city’s leading not-for-profit organizations that strives to develop programs to unify our community, we are excited to partner with Stevens Institute of Technology to bring this program to all of our schools and engage students to solve fun STEM challenges in an academic setting,” said Rachel Matthai, the HFA Director of Finance.
According to Matthai, STEM-a-thon is the first-ever event to involve every sixth grade student from 11 Hoboken schools–Calabro, Connors, and Wallace Elementary Schools, All Saints Episcopal Day School, Elysian Charter School, Hoboken Catholic Academy, Hoboken Charter School, HoLa Charter School, The Hudson School, The Mustard Seed School, and Stevens Cooperative School.
HFA also sponsored and secured educational STEM field trips for each of the schools.
“One of the key goals of this event is to engage and inspire Hoboken’s budding scientists and engineers in the fun and excitement of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” said Stevens President Dr. Nariman Farvardin. “STEM is everywhere, in iPhones and video games, in medical advances and in innovations that make our city more secure and resilient in future storms like Hurricane Sandy. We hope that many of the students who attend the STEM-a-thon will consider pursuing STEM degrees and careers.”
Beth McGrath, President Farvardin’s chief of staff and a former director of CIESE, said the goal of the STEM-a-thon day was to break the disconnect that can sometimes form between classroom learning and fun activities, especially when it comes to math and science. “The whole point is to get kids to have a better understanding of engineering and greater enthusiasm for engineering at the same time,” said McGrath.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer and State Assemblyman Carmelo Garcia showed up to cheer on the students and deliver short statements of support.

Carlo Davis may be reached at

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