Students use the TI-Nspire CX graphing calculator to analyze fluid samples at the STEMsmart Middle School Summit.

Students use the TI-Nspire CX graphing calculator to analyze fluid samples at the STEMsmart Middle School Summit.

More than 200 middle-school students from Sarasota County finished their school year by tackling “real-world” business challenges like designing marketable Tervis drinkware and developing a space capsule prototype for human spaceflight.

The activities were part of the 2015 STEMsmart Middle School Summit, an event sponsored by Gulf Coast Community Foundation and hosted by the Ringling College of Art and Design.

Authenticating the students’ real-world learning experience during the daylong summit were scores of volunteer mentors from the business community, including engineers and other professionals from the likes of Tervis, PGT Industries, Sun Hydraulics and Texas Instruments Education Technology.

The summit served as a culmination for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s five-year STEMsmart science and math education initiative.

“STEMsmart has been all about making science and math relevant and fun for students while engaging businesses in showing them the vast opportunities to apply STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills in their future careers,” said Teri A. Hansen, president and CEO of Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

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Spread over several floors of Ringling College’s Academic Center, 10 teams of 12 students each competed in the product development challenge, working through the entire process that is followed by businesses like Tervis, from creating a product brief to proving their business case.

Each team broke into task forces to tackle the different phases of the cycle before regrouping to pull their work together, eventually pitching a prototype design and marketing plan for a new drinkware product aimed at 12- to 14-year-olds.

The challenge was created and overseen by product development executives David Szczepaniuk and Agnes Lauwagie and a team of their Tervis colleagues. “What you experienced today are real-life product development stages,” said Lauwagie. “You did it in four hours. It takes us months, even years sometimes, and we’re really amazed with what you came up with.”

At the same time that new tumblers were being imagined, 60 more students filled a large and buzzing classroom for the Orion space capsule challenge, developed and run by Texas Instruments Education Technology.

Using the TI-Nspire CX graphing calculator to design and assess their spacecraft and its components, each of the 15 teams created a small capsule with a protective heat shield and working parachute and then analyzed a simulated urine sample to select the healthiest astronaut for a mission.

TI’s president of Education Technology, Peter Balyta, Ph.D., was one of the experts who mentored a four-student team throughout the challenge. “At Texas Instruments, we strive to unleash students’ passion for STEM,” said Balyta.

The third challenge at the summit was the VEX Robotics competition, which featured robots designed and built by school teams going head-to-head in game-based engineering contests.

Complete with a competition field assembled on the stage of the college’s auditorium, the robotics challenge was overseen by Sarasota County Schools’ department of Career and Technical Education.

During the closing awards ceremony, Dr. Page Dettmann, executive director of middle schools for Sarasota County, told the students, “I was so impressed with the way you worked together. The challenges that you faced and the accomplishments that you arrived at were nothing short of amazing.”

Gulf Coast Community Foundation is a public charity that was created in 1995 through the sale of the Venice Hospital.

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