Weekly Wrap-up: Present and Future Innovators at the Riverside STEM Fair

Turns out the STEM team was being a bit elementary in our explorations last month. That, or the students at Greenwich’s Riverside Elementary School are upping their game. The truth is almost certainly the latter, as evidenced by a visit to Riverside’s inaugural STEM Fair, a PTA-sponsored, volunteer exhibition of student work, which included fruit-based electrochemical cells eerily similar to our previous work. Student explorations truly ranged from science to technology to engineering to math. To quote a student, “math is coding and coding is fun, so math is fun.” A fifth grader specifically calling out the transitive property was one of many fun presentations our team saw yesterday.

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Brian tries out the pressure sensitive pen prototype.

When we first visited Riverside’s Genius Hour last fall, we had the distinct pleasure of meeting a girl who was on the trail of a hot new invention: a pressure sensitive pen. She explained to us her vision of a pen that could sense when the user was gripping it too tightly and then light up to tell the user to lighten up and avoid hand fatigue. So it was quite a thrill to see her progress as outlined in her STEM fair project. Thus far, this enterprising 3rd grader (yes, I said 3rd grader!) has constructed a prototype using a breadboard, a battery, an LED light, and a pressure sensor. This prototype does indeed light up an LED to differing levels of brightness dependent upon the degree of “squeeze” applied to the pressure sensor. The truly impressive part however, wasn’t even the prototype itself, it was the ease and confidence with which she explained to use how the whole thing worked, including descriptions of current, resistance, and positive and negative leads of an LED light.

An especially fun project had third graders dye clothing with spices and vegetables. They explored how much color beets, onion peels, turmeric, cabbage, and other ingredients could produce. These girls sold the feasibility by actually wearing shirts they had tie-dyed with turmeric and purple cabbage. How many times has turmeric stained your counter? These girls saw its potency in a valuable way.

Brian and this inventor discuss the inspiration for a modified pedestrian crosswalk.

Another fifth grade student identified a need to create a crosswalk that helps traffic better see when a pedestrian is crossing a street at night. He mentioned his sister’s friend was hit crossing a street (she’s making a slow recovery) one night on the way to a college event. Her accident and, separately, the illumination of the Freedom Tower inspired him to think up a way to light up crosswalks. In his design, when a person steps on the part of the sidewalk that leads into the street, a horizontal light illuminates (Entrapment style) for 20 seconds until they cross. We asked probing questions – does a sensor like this exist? Some attentive students did remember the weight-sensing pads that used to open sliding doors at the entrance of a supermarket.

The expo encouraged students to think big. Often, people fall into a habit of squashing ideas like these – they’re too costly, too outrageous, or something similar exists. But these students thought up their best solutions and were encouraged to suspend some doubts in favor of a cool idea. The truth is that some of the most innovative ideas are created when a creator isn’t hampered by existing constraints. It’s also encouraging to remember that the next big idea can sometimes come from the smallest thing, as demonstrated by another STEM fair standout. One student was frustrated with the number of sub-pages one has to navigate on the Riverside School homepage just to figure out what’s for lunch. His solution, learn a bit of HTML basic coding, create your own mirrored webpage, and then generate a QR code. Now, one click of your phone and you’re there, with two week’s worth of lunch menu at your fingertips. Perhaps not the world’s most pressing problem, but one that was real for the student and for which he created a simple and effective solution.

Kudos to Riverside’s parents, teachers, administrators, and PTA for making this STEM adventure come alive. And bravo above all else to the amazing students. We can’t wait to welcome these young innovators to GHS in the years to come!

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