From left: Zoe Sosa, Mia Vega, Emme Harrell and Karisma Noone

“You’re working as engineers today,” Missy St. Pierre-Sands tells the classroom of fifth graders. “What do engineers do? They design, create, and improve technology, which is anything human made that solves problems.”

With that said, the students in Belkis Espinal-Dominguez’ math-science class at Partin Settlement Elementary School in Kissimmee begin designing and creating solar-powered fair rides using K’Nex interlocking toy building pieces and a small motor. Their hands-on learning experience is part of Project AWESOME, a STEM-based program sponsored by OUC ― The Reliable One and taught by Orlando Science Center educators like St. Pierre-Sands.

Project Alternative Water and Energy Supply; Observation, Methods and Education (AWESOME) helps fifth grade students learn about alternative energy and water conservation and prepares them for the Florida Standards Assessments. Since its inception in 2009, AWESOME has reached more than 100,000 Orange and Osceola county public school students in OUC’s service territory. The 90-minute classes are taught in English and Spanish.

“This effort brings science to life for thousands of students every year by having them develop innovative solutions to real-world environmental problems,” said JoAnn Newman, President and CEO of Orlando Science Center. “Our partnership with OUC enables the Science Center to engage students with the powerful message of water conservation and alternative energy as we help them build the important skills needed to address these issues.”

Given instructions and a 10-minute time limit on building rides for a pretend “Solar Fair” hosted by OUC, Espinal-Dominguez’ students, working in teams, become engineers as they snap K’Nex pieces together. The challenges before them include making sure each ride has three moving parts, measures 15 centimeters wide and 20 centimeters tall (6×8 inches, approximately), runs on solar power, is safe for guests (in other words, it’s stable while in use), and stays on or under budget. Each team is given a $50,000 make-believe spending limit to build a ride, with $37,450 spent up front on the solar fair ride kit. If they need additional parts, they can “buy” them.

From left: Janeli Conde, Suzie Cohen, Isabella Salmon and Coral Rosario

In just a few minutes the students get a crash course in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the underlying messages of this STEM-focused workshop.

When it’s time for the rides to be tested, St. Pierre-Sands plugs the motors in each to solar panels the size of smart phones and turns on overhead desk lamps. Powered by radiant energy, the rides’ moving pieces rotate. St. Pierre-Sands evaluates the rides with the class, determining if each meets all requirements. Some are deemed unsafe while others don’t meet the correct specifications.

So, the class gets a chance to improve their rides for another test run, with it ending in a complete success.

What did the class project teach students? Many said they didn’t know the sun could be used to create electric power. Suzie Cohen said she learned about battery storage for solar power and where fossil fuels come from.

Belkis Espinal-Dominguez (center) says her math-science students look forward to participating in Project AWESOME.

Espinal-Dominguez said Project AWESOME gives her students a thorough overview of subject matter she’ll cover all year. “Everything I have to teach in a school year, they teach in two hours,” she said, referring to Science Center educators. “It’s a good preview of things we’re going to do later on in the year. The students really look forward to it.”