Self-driving trucks? Building your own race car? For 18 third graders at Ridgetop Elementary School in Austin, TX, the world of STEM came to life thanks to classroom volunteers from TORC, a self-driving truck technology company, and the University of Texas Longhorn Racing Team.
From the moment their special visitors first walked up to the building, it was obvious the students were really excited and curious—so excited that it was hard to get them lined up. When Alvin Hidajat, a systems integration engineer with TORC, asked if they had any questions 10 hands immediately popped up. The questions ranged from “what happens if there’s a software problem?” to “what happens if a truck stops working in the middle of the road?”
All the while, third grade dual language teacher Carmen Gray could see her students starting to make connections between what they were learning in the classroom with real-world applications. “My students absolutely loved the activities and it gave them a sense of wonder/curiosity about physics in general, but specifically I had 3-4 students inquire about careers in robot building and how robots could be used in the future for different world issues: cleaning the trash from oceans and taking care of people,” Carmen noted.
The 10 volunteers were at Ridgetop Elementary as part of the SAE A World In Motion® (AWIM®) STEM education program with students participating in the AWIM Rolling Things Challenge. Professional engineers like Alvin and university students like first-year mechanical engineering undergraduate Ali Jensen provide invaluable mentorship and expose young learners to STEM careers. “The idea of engineering is very broad. We’re problem solvers of all different kinds. We work on fixing a problem,” Alvin added.
As a member of the Longhorn Racing Team, Ali helps design and build a working formula-style vehicle for a competition against the top engineering students on the planet. “Who drives?” “What’s the car made of?” students eagerly asked as she talked about the Formula SAE race car build. She’s also in charge of community engagement for her team participating in the SAE LearnTwice™ program which is what led to the connection with Ridgetop.
The one thing Alvin and Ali enjoyed the most was having a chance to see students come out of their shell. Initially, one dual language learner didn’t seem completely comfortable communicating her ideas in English. The volunteers worked with her one-on-one and pretty soon, she started to ask more questions and get excited.
Throughout the AWIM experience there were a lot of cheers. When a car would go far, the students would cheer with excitement. When a car didn’t go far, the students were frustrated but they still cheered and then started working together to find a way to make improvements for next time.
Thanks to a community partnership between TORC and the Longhorn Racing Team through the SAE Foundation, the students had the unique chance to spend time with and learn from professional engineers and university students.
Based on student reactions, the excitement for STEM at Ridgetop Elementary will only continue to grow. There’s already been talk about having industry and university volunteers come back to lead more AWIM experiences.
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