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Six Molalla River Middle engineering squad students talk fun, failure and South Africa

COURTESY PHOTO: RANDY DALTON - One of the students' challenges was to create structures on a shake table that could withstand shaking as in an earthquake.It seems unlikely a science club would be popular among middle-schoolers, but at Molalla River Middle School, the engineering club has about 20 regular attenders. Recently, participants had the chance to go global, interacting with partner clubs across the nation and the world.

Of the many club members, six sat down to chat about their experience. They were Steven Conley, Karli Campbell, Morgan Arellano, Lyra Preston, Carl Ribbeck and Maddasen Allen.

All of them would recommend the club not just to those with a keen interest in science, but to everyone.

"It's just a great club, and even if you don't know the first thing about science or designing, you can learn all of it here," Steven said.

Lyra also commented on the club extending beyond the "sciency" type.

"I recommend it to everyone because anyone can build something that does something else," Lyra said. "Plus, it makes you think more about what you're building and how to get it to work."

The school's Design Squad is among many after-school clubs new to the school last year and is led by Principal Randy Dalton. It was first created by Molalla High students as their senior project. Since the founders graduated, Dalton, a former science teacher, saw it as an opportunity to reengage with his passion.

The Design Squad usually meets twice a month, but recently went six straight weeks to participate in the Design Squad Global program, an extension of a PBS Kids television series.

DSG offers activities, curriculum, a teaching guide and more, and is 100 percent free online. It also connects clubs from around the world.

"We just want to get kids seeing themselves as future engineers," said Nicki Sirianni, DSG's outreach and marketing specialist. "The whole purpose is really to get kids to see all communities have different challenges, but all of them can be solved using engineering as a tool to address these challenges."

Molalla's club was partnered with others from North Carolina, Massachusetts and Guateng, South Africa. The clubs worked on the same engineering problems simultaneously, and regularly collaborated through video chat, videos and photos.

"I learned that they could still speak English even though they were on the other side of the world," Karli said of the South Africa club. "…Mostly I learned that we would use certain materials, and they would use different ones, but they would somewhat still turn out the same."

COURTESY PHOTO: RANDY DALTON - A student shows off his parachute design.Throughout the six weeks, students worked on challenges like creating a helping hand for out-of-reach items, making a ping-pong ball launcher and designing structures that could withstand earthquakes.

"A lot of communities face earthquakes, and a big problem in engineering is: How do we build structures that can withstand earthquakes?" Sirianni said. "So, we give kids the materials and teach them how to build a shake table, and then challenge them to test and build structures that can withstand a great amount of shaking."

Throughout the different challenges, the club members used trial and error, and through that, seem to have gained a new perception of failure. They now know it's just part of the process of creating something great.

"[The club] can build up your confidence," Morgan said. "Like if you fail, don't give up. You can just keep trying and find different possibilities for it to work."

Carl mentioned the benefits of the club and of perseverance too.

"It's something that helps you learn how to build, engineer and make your own project," Carl said. "And if you fail, you just keep trying until it's a success."

Molalla's club may participate in a DSG event again, but for now they've moved on to working with the 3-D printer—another lesson in trial and error as Steven can attest to after a failed keychain creation and Carl can attest to after a failed wheel.

Some kids are taking their skills outside the club too and putting it to use for fun—like building blanket forts and fixing toys.

"Before I started this, me and Morgan didn't know how to fix my dirt bike," Maddasen said. "And then, [we] were at the BMX track with my dirt bike, and it got really muddy, and we had to mess with the motor for a couple minutes before we could start it."

With new skills, confidence and perspective, these kids are ready to tackle whatever challenges—engineering or otherwise—life may hold for them in the future. Many of them can now see themselves going into STEAM-related careers.

Design Squad Global is made possible by WGBH and PBS Kids and is free to participants through grants and private donations from National Science Foundation, the Lemelson Foundation and more. Check it out at

Kristen Wohlers
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