As business and school district leaders wrapped up a big announcement today in Hashman Middle School’s library  — national support for science and math mentoring in Indianapolis — just the sort of excitement they hoped to generate was taking place down the hall.

A group of seventh grade would-be engineers were competing to build the best ping-pong paddle out of popsicle sticks and tape. They were one class of teacher Tabatha Briones’ 160 engineering students at Indianapolis Public Schools’ science and math magnet middle school.

Ever four to six weeks, the kids plot, draw and then build something — a rubber band car or a popsicle stick bridge, for example — in hopes their models will earn accolades as either the best performer or most stylish design.

“Each project is completely different,” Briones said. “But anytime I do any project, I do a competition.”

Back down the hall, the adults asked: can the sort of enthusiasm evident in Briones’ classroom be spread to other students? Can it be sustained so that students go on to college to major in scientific fields that are badly shorthanded? Is there a way to help today’s kids someday benefit both the state’s economy and their own economic well-being by landing jobs in fields based in science, technology, engineering and math?

“Simply put, we do not have enough individuals with backgrounds in STEM fields,” said Jason Kloth, Indianapolis’ deputy mayor for education. “There is a disconnect between students interested in STEM and STEM professionals.”

A coalition of Indianapolis civic, business and community leaders hopes expanded mentoring can be part of the answer.

Simon Rhodes, dean of the School of Science at IUPUI, hails a new mentoring program as IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee looks on. (Scott Elliott)
Simon Rhodes, dean of the School of Science at IUPUI, hails a new mentoring program as IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee looks on. (Scott Elliott)

Their proposal on Tuesday beat out plans from 45 other cities to earn a share of $1 million in privately raised dollars through the US2020 City Competition. It was one of just seven cities picked to earn financial, consulting and staff support to launch its plan.

Led by the TechPoint Foundation for Youth, a philanthropic group that promotes STEM programs, more than 40 community partners backed the idea.

Among them were major science-based companies like Eli Lilly and Company, Roche Diagnostics and Cummins, which pledged to connect STEM mentors with students from nine schools in IPS, Lawrence and Pike townships, along with four Boys & Girls Clubs.

For IPS, the plan is to expand STEM from magnet programs at Harshman and Arsenal Tech High School to create a pipeline from lower grades by adding new STEM instruction at School 14 and School 15. Mentoring will come in the form of school day, after school and summer enrichment programs.

“This provides us an opportunity to put caring adults in front of our students and enhance STEM in our classrooms,” IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. “We know that by sixth grade our high income students have 6,000 more hours of enrichment activities compared their low income peers. This is an opportunity for them to become interested in STEM fields and improve performance in those content areas.”

For the participating companies, mentoring in STEM is not just good citizenship, it’s good business, said Rob Smith, president of the Lilly Foundation.

“Our employees, particularly younger employees, are interested in more than just a paycheck,” he said. “They want to feel they are connected to something bigger than themselves. We have found when we provide those opportunities, like STEM volunteers through this program, our employees feel more connected to the community and they are better employees.”

Shelby Waugh (left) and Dalton Dean try to play ping pong with the paddles they designed. (Scott Elliott)
Shelby Waugh (left) and Dalton Dean try to play ping pong with the paddles they designed. (Scott Elliott)

Can a popsicle stick ping-pong paddle change the world?

Maybe so, if it’s a first a step for middle schoolers interested in engineering to understand the big concepts that engineers use to make the products that and build the structures that change people’s lives.

In this case, the concept Harshman’s engineering class aimed to impart was Newton’s laws of motion, said seventh grader Dalton Dean as he and Brendan Delay added tape to their paddle.

The first law is inertia, Dean said: an object at rest, like a ping-pong ball, will remain so until acted on by an outside force, like a paddle. The force exerted to ball is the second law. That force equals the mass of the object multiplied by its acceleration. Finally, the third law of action vs. reaction says the ball will put equal force on the paddle as it is struck.

When their paddle hits the ball, Dean said, “It goes through all of the stages at once.”

As Dean explained, Delay stood by, eager to interject. But when his partner finished, he simply nodded.

“Good explanation,” he said, looking at Dean. “I couldn’t have said it better.”