Wauwatosa STEM students launch and learn

C.T. Kruger
First grader David Miller (left), fifth grader Peter Keepman and second graders Ana Oliver of the Marshamllow Men watch the flight of one of their three marshmallow projectiles during the Snowball Sling on Dec. 19.
Published on: 12/26/2012

Wauwatosa STEM students got ready, aimed and fired their homemade catapults Dec. 19. These catapults didn't carry deadly cannonballs but were loaded instead with delicious marshmallows.

The event, titled Snowball Sling, pitted teams of students against each other in a bracketed competition to see who could launch the treats the farthest.

Groups with names like Sassy Piranhas and Polar Platypuses designed, shot and calculated their trajectories. Each group was composed of three students, each from a different age bracket. One served as catapult securer, one fired the catapult and the third measured the distance traveled by the marshmallow.

"The hands-on activity is so wonderful for the little ones and the older ones too because they get to show off what they learned," Wauwatosa STEM teacher Chris Sellers said.

Sellers said in some groups, the older students let the younger ones drive; in other groups, the older students took the reins.

"Leadership comes in all sorts of forms," he said.

Shooting catapults wasn't all fun and games. When the students finished firing they began number crunching. They had to find the mean, median, mode and range of the marshmallows.

The event came on the heels of STEM's project on Newton's three laws of motion. Each group had to come up with a detailed plan explaining how they'd use Newton's laws to launch the marshmallows as far as they could.

Each team was expected to shoot their marshmallow at least 5 meters; some shot over 13 meters. The groups were given three tries to land their ammo as far as possible and had to keep the marshmallow in bounds or else it was counted as a zero. Those who lost the competition were given other catapult-related activities such as knocking over plastic cups or shooting marshmallows into a bucket.

The project was a fusion of learning with writing, math and group work according to STEM Principal Michael Heun.

"One of the things that we have as a charter school is the freedom to not follow the exact curriculum of the Wauwatosa School District," he said. "The teachers are allowed to be a little more creative. They are always tweaking and thinking of ways to get people to think of engineering."

Parent volunteers helped students measure and shoot the catapults. One parent went so far as to dress up as "Super Santa."

The snowball fling was the first time in the science, math, technology and engineering program's six years that students shot catapults. It may not be the last time, but according to Sellers, next year the event could be anything from building a load-bearing gingerbread house to a snow igloo.