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Hundreds of students compete in STEM competition in Lenoir County

On Friday Feb. 16, the gym of Lenoir Community College was filled with 400 students and their teachers, some decked out in royal blue Technology Student Association button-downs, to compete against middle schoolers and high schoolers across the eastern half of the state.

Competitions range from the whizzing dragster races, which gather crowds to watch the tiny carbon dioxide powered vehicles zoom across a long table stretching the length of the gym, to creative projects like children’s storybook writing and illustrating.

Kids can participate in prepared speeches, career prep, marketing projects, structural engineering, coding and digital photography. In addition to participating, students walk throughout the gym and various rooms on campus to check out miniature airplanes, solar-powered model cars, and “Rube Goldberg” mechanical devices.

Jerianne Taylor, the NC TSA executive director and state advisor, said that this was the 39th year of TSA in North Carolina, but the events have been going on in the eastern part of the state since the turn of the century.

One of the competing schools is located just down the road. Contentnea-Savannah School is a K-8 school in Kinston, and one of only 12 schools in North Carolina to have received their STEM certification.

Stephanie Harrell, a STEM elective teacher at Contentnea-Savannah, and has been teaching for 19 years. She’s spent two years in her current position, and prior to that she taught science or math.

“I’ve always really liked that, while we learn these subjects in silos, they’re really not silo subjects,” Harrell said. “They’re integrated.”

Lenoir County received grant money from the Golden Leaf Foundation in 2016 to go towards STEM labs in middle schools. This is when Harrell jumped on board as a STEM educator.

Contentnea-Savannah students are able to participate in STEM activities through the TSA course taught by Harrell, or through designated STEM time every morning for middle school kids.

Within their grade levels, students work on STEM projects in the designated times, Harrell said, where teachers can lead different projects, which can have backgrounds in social studies as well as math, so students can see how subjects combine to create STEM.

Emily Bogan, an eighth grader at Contentnea-Savannah, helped build the 27-gram wooden bridge for the structural engineering event during STEM time in the two weeks prior to the regional competition.

“We have a lot of STEM in school, so it’s really easy to get involved,” Bogan said.

Harrell teaches around 300 kids in her elective each year at Contentnea-Savannah, which makes them all eligible to participate in these kinds of competitions.

Taylor said that representatives from all of the schools are able to compete in the state level competition, which will be held in Greensboro from April 20-24, but the number of entries goes down and schools have to be more selective with who gets to represent them for each event.

“STEM is a growing career, it’s a useful career, and it’s growing in a lot of different places,” Kyle Halstater, the president of NCTSA and a junior at Chapel Hill High School, said. “Especially with things like this, you learn valuable skills.”

Halstater has been competing since he was a sixth grader. His favorite event of all time is inventions and innovations, for which his team once made an alarm clock that only shut off when you stepped on a mat beside your bed.

“It gives the students an opportunity to develop their problem solving skills, to think critically,” Taylor said. “Our team events allow teams to develop leadership skills. In the same regard, they are hopefully preparing for a STEM career pathway as they get involved in these competitions.”

Sara Kiley Watson

Sara Kiley Watson is a graduate student of environmental studies and journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is a product of Wake County Public Schools, having attended Hunter Elementary, Ligon Middle, and Broughton High School. Her work has been featured in Popular Science, IndyWeek, and ExitEvent.