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Students Engaged in Learning 'Beautiful to See'

CSTEM students are building robots, writing and using creative talents in preparation for a national competition in Texas.

Foregoing Saturday morning cartoons and video games seemed like no biggie to the 35 kids who turned up at William Wirt Middle School yesterday. In fact, many relished the opportunity provided by volunteer teachers and the National CSTEM Challenge, a pre-K through 12 competition aimed at fostering interest in and preparing students for careers of the future.

CSTEM, which stands for Communications, Science, Technology, Environment and Math, is a nonprofit organization whose central mission involves eliminating achievement gaps in those fields through project-based learning initiatives.

“It’s beautiful to see,” said Lisa Walters, a substitute teacher and volunteer. “This program allows kids to think outside the box, to engage themselves and problem solve.”

Since CSTEM kicked off in September, students from Port Towns Elementary, Wirt Middle School and Bladensburg High School have been attending monthly workshops in the hopes of winning blue ribbons at the 2010-2011 CSTEM Challenge, which will be held on April 16 at the convention center in Houston, Tex. 

“It’s going to be my first time on an airplane,” said elementary student Dominion Taiwoadewusi — this, while sketching out a sea turtle that will ultimately be included on her team’s mural.

Of course, Taiwoadewusi wasn’t the only one thinking big. 

“What are we doing here?” Mark Spriggs, a teacher, asked his robotics team. 

“We’re trying to absorb oil without hurting sea turtles, or ourselves,” replied Daniel, a middle school student fiddling with a four-wheeled robot his team assembled a month prior.

As with five other projects — ranging from the creation of pop-up story books and sea-turtle sculptures, to oil spill containment strategies using geographic information systems — the robotics challenge addresses issues of environmental concern.  

In this case, students are tasked with assembling and programming robots capable of herding turtles and plugging a gushing oil valve. 

“Oh, we’ll get it done,” Spriggs said of his team’s looming deadline. “Come April, we will be ready for Texas.”

Meanwhile, Alma Smith, a coordinator for Bladensburg High School’s biomedical program, presented students with a YouTube video of the “Da Vinci Robot” carefully peeling the skin off of a grape with its mechanical arms.

“(CSTEM) is designed to give these kids a head start, to provide them with insight and to recruit them into promising fields such health care,” Smith said. 

In the school cafeteria, a group of young girls read and exchanged drafts of their stories for the creative writing challenge, another component of the program.

“I chose this [challenge] because it seemed very catchy,” said fifth-grader Sara Kandeh, sitting among her peers and a younger cast of elementary students. “And I like writing and getting to work with younger students, to see how they think.” 

Kevin Kendrick, a reading and language arts teacher at William Wirt Middle School, said each of the illustrated pop-up books will be comprised of folktales about “the creation of life, strength of community and embracing the universe.”

But when asked to reveal a little more of the story, Kendrick quipped: “We don’t want anyone to see our magnificence until we get to Texas.”

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