Mousetrap Car Competition Helps Students Develop STEM Skills

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ELA teacher Gwendolyn Maturo-Grasso helped start the STEM program at Lincoln Middle School in 1999. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to increase opportunities for students to gain exposure to science, technology, engineering and math-centered activities.
One such way is through the Southeastern Consortium for Minorities in Engineering (SECME) program. A national club with a mission of increasing the number of under-served students who enter STEM fields, today there are local clubs established at most middle schools in the district, as well as ITC and Henninger.
Clubs meet initially to help students connect with each other through teambuilding activities like building a bridge out of toothpicks. Students progress to preparing for the SECME regional Mousetrap Car Competition—an engineering competition often used by colleges because of its simplicity yet complexity.
The goal is for students to use their imagination to make the smallest, lightest, fastest car. The challenge? The only energy for the car is the snap of a mousetrap’s spring. At Grant Middle School, science teacher Rob Woolery helps students build their model cars, including brief question and answer sessions with students about things like gear ratios and types of energy—helping them learn to draw their own conclusions about improvements that could be made to their creations.
Eighth grader Gotti Bostwick said he has noticed his skills improving as a result of his participation in SECME. “I joined because it sounded fun,” he said. “But I learned that you can’t just throw things together on the car and have it work. You have to work to make things fit together. My problem solving has gotten better!”
SECME club students work together to name their team, write a technical report of how they designed their car, and make a technical drawing—like an engineering blueprint—to show their car’s specifics. Then, after having their creation weighed and measured, the teams participate in a live interview in front of a panel of four to five judges.
Grant eighth grader Destinee Her said these technical skills have been a worthwhile challenge. “The hardest thing is drawing the sides of our car in a perfect sequence [for the technical drawing],” she explained. “But it’s helped grow my interest in designing and building small things. Now I look at the way things are built.”
Her classmate, eighth grader Anita Khamtan, is also drawn to the more technical elements. “I have learned to sketch really well and rely on my team,” she said, noting that her teamwork skills paid off in the ten SECME competitions she has taken part in. “I want to keep getting better at engineering skills because I want to be a mechanical engineer when I grow up.”
In addition to the mousetrap cars, students are encouraged to enter science fairs, rocketry and bridge building contests, the soapbox derby and more. The skills developed in SECME help prepare students for college in several ways, advisors say.
Syracuse University College of Engineering and Computer Science Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs Dr. Can Isik says these activities can change students’ horizons. “We have been working with the Syracuse City School District through SECME for over 10 years,” he recalled. “Students and teachers are very dedicated, and the popularity of Mousetrap Car Competition has been increasing steadily. Events like these motivate students to take their science, technology and math courses seriously, and be better prepared to pursue STEM fields in college.”
College plans aside, the collaboration and other skills built through SECME activities can help students become more confident, stronger leaders and more interested in trying new activities.
Grant eighth grader Mulah Hser didn’t have grand ambitions when she joined SECME, but in less than a year, she has become hooked. “I wanted to try it for a year,” she recalled. “If I liked it, I’d continue next year. I probably will now, because I like science!”
Congratulations to ITC students Phuong Nguyen and Trang Nguyen and Grant’s “Gator Squad” team for winning first place in the high school and middle school divisions, respectively. Both teams have been offered a spot at the National SECME Competition in Tuscaloosa, Alabama!