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Helicopter design challenge fuels STEAM learning for middle, high school students






America’s earliest practical helicopter, a Sikorsky model VS-300, made its first flight in September 1939. Seventy-six years later in 2015, Sikorsky looks to the future with a scholarship contest that invites middle and high school students to design a “helicopter of tomorrow.”

Winners of the contest will receive the Igor Sikorsky Youth Innovator Award, a $1,000 scholarship and a visit to Sikorsky’s headquarters in Stratford, Connecticut. 

Students from across the nation are invited to participate in the 5th annual Sikorsky Helicopter 2050 Challenge, which aims to help children recognize the value in overcoming challenges and problem solving – in this case, using math and science skills. 

Forward Thinking Initiatives, a nonprofit that focuses on promoting youth entrepreneurship and innovation, is the Tampa Bay area ambassador for the challenge.

“We want to stimulate student’s interests in learning about inventing and critical thinking,” explains Forward Thinking Initiatives founder Debra Campbell. “Part of entrepreneurship is not just knowing how to come up with good ideas, but with opportunities. So this is their opportunity to learn about inventing.” 

The process of innovation

Fifteen middle school students who attend the Artz4Life Academy after-school program in Clearwater are gathered at the St. Petersburg Greenhouse on an early September evening for the first meeting session of the Sikorsky Challenge. Each is armed with a marker, a pencil and sheets of blank paper.

Their objective over the next few weeks: to design an innovative, eco-friendly “helicopter of the future” that takes the potential environmental challenges of 2050 into consideration. 

Campbell, who hopes to see students take “a love of innovating” away from the experience, tells the students that she has three main requirements from them: Finish and submit their design ideas; survive failure; show grit.

The process of innovation is laid out in two steps: (1) develop solutions to a problem, and (2) solve that problem with a new design.

Melody Ucros, an entrepreneurship major at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, leads an icebreaker activity during the first session that highlights this process.

“What are some things that can go wrong with a pencil?” Ucros asks students. 

After letting students brainstorm briefly, Ucros asks them to devise all the ways that they can think of to improve upon the flaws, and to sketch their ideas. One stand-out response: a pencil made of eraser with refillable lead inserts in the middle.
Ucros, president of the Entrepreneurship Club at USFSP, is serving as a mentor during the Thursday evening planning sessions, along with some of the other club members. 

The program’s main focus is to help young students “develop that mindset of continuing entrepreneurship,” Ucros says, “and understand the value that comes from researching and learning and becoming aware of problems and developing solutions, which is what a real entrepreneur does.”

Along with Campbell, Ucros and members of the USFSP Entrepreneurship Club, volunteer challenge mentors at the first session include third-generation maritime sailor James Spear and retired USAF pilot and local activist Neil Costentino

Overall, Campbell says, community response to the challenge has been very positive, with experts or advanced students in the fields of engineering and related topics offering their time for upcoming sessions, including one in Tampa on September 19th. 

Challenging today’s youth to think about tomorrow

Artz4Life Academy Founder Jai Hinson says that the school’s mission is to “reinforce resilience.”

“One of the best ways to do that is to prepare them for the future with opportunities to expand, broaden their horizons, and grow upward,” Hinson explains. 

The Sikorsky helicopter challenge offers 15 students that opportunity. 

“I’m looking forward to watching the youngsters develop through the process,” Hinson says. “They will come out of it thinking differently. Their lives will be enriched by this experience.”

Students in the after-school program at Artz4Life Academy, which also offers summer camp programs, attend a variety of schools in Clearwater, including Lakeside Christian, Dunedin Middle School, Skycrest Christian, King’s Lanes, Clearwater Intermediate and Clearwater Fundamental. 

The organization focuses many programs on the arts and literature, but STEM activities like the Sikorsky Helicopter 2050 Challenge are welcome additions to cultural arts curriculum, Hinson says.

“It’s important for the children to grasp the concept that technology is not in the future – it’s here,” Hinson says. “This challenge will be a great opportunity for them to learn about inventing and the critical thinking process. You never know what might cause a spark.”

Submissions to the Sikorsky Helicopter 2050 Challenge are due by October 15, 2015; judging will take place on or around November 15. Participants will be judged based on the following criteria: 25 percent drawing and writing, 25 percent environmental friendliness, and 50 percent originality of the idea. Participants must submit a design idea, but a prototype is not necessary.

How can local Tampa Bay area teens and pre-teens get involved? 

A one-day workshop for the Sikorsky Helicopter 2050 Challenge, the Teen Innovation Contest, will be held from 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 19th at The Hive at John F. Germany Library in downtown Tampa. 

For more information or to register, call 813 760-7860 or visit the Forward Thinking Initiatives Teen Innovation Contest website.

Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

Justine Benstead is a feature writer and editor for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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