Capitol's First STEM Challenge a Soaring Success

On October 15th, Capitol Tech held its debut “Capitol STEM Challenge” event, hosting 181 local middle and high-school aged students and their families for a day of hands-on fun and learning on Capitol’s campus. The faculty-led event featured multidisciplinary activities designed to engage a younger crowd, and students enjoyed everything from flying drones to building databases on a sunny fall Saturday in Laurel.

The day began at 9am with check-in in McGowan, where attendees enjoyed a light breakfast while socializing and meeting the educators who would guide them through the day’s events before breaking off into smaller groups and dispersing throughout campus for the morning.

In the library, Computer Science professor Andrew Mehri kicked off the morning with a “Fun with Fixtures for Database Applications” activity, where students used Microsoft Access software to build digital inventories of simple items to get experience with database creation and management. 

Just outside, the sky was abuzz with drones as students shakily practiced navigating the unmanned aerial vehicles through various obstacles under the guidance of Dr. Rick Hansen and professor Ryan Schrenk. Students giggled with amusement as their parents ducked for cover at times when the drones momentarily steered off-course, and they left the session with some impressive new flight skills.


students gather around for a drone-flying lesson


McGowan’s state-of-the-art labs got their time to shine during the STEM Challenge as well, with professor Marcel Mabson guiding eager future satellite engineers through a simulated launch scenario in the Space Flight Operations and Training Center (SFOTC). Learners interacted with the same technology used in real NASA flights as they collaborated to thrust a virtual satellite into orbit.


professor and student use computer together


Down the hall in the Cyber Lab, young hackers worked their way through a virtual capture-the-flag (CTF), following clues and coding their way around cyberspace in order to locate a virtual flag and win the game. Dr. Hansen and members of Capitol Tech’s Signal-9 cyber battle team assisted with this activity and helped students understand the unique type of logic needed to crack the various codes. 


student looking over shoulder of child on computer


Later that afternoon, in collaboration with the National Society of Black Engineers’ FIRE STEM program, rocketry-obsessed students excitedly launched the model rockets they diligently spent nearly the entire morning building. With Innovators’ Hall as a backdrop, the students lined up their creations and blasted them into the atmosphere one-by-one. Despite a few initial hiccups, every student was able to enjoy watching the fruit of their labor soar into space and then gently float down, carried by a miniature parachute. 


students about to launch rocket


Keeping in line with the space theme, Capitol’s ALPHA Observatory intern, Ainsley Fitzhugh, led several afternoon tours of the newly established observatory, teaching students the names of different constellations and watching their eyes light up with wonder as she explained how to point the telescope toward different stars and planets. Several students were even lucky enough to peer through the eyepiece themselves.


showing girl telescope


To round out the day, Construction and Critical Infrastructure program manager Gary Burke taught a group of students how to accurately measure and plan for large-scale construction projects. Using mathematical equations such as the Pythagorean Theorem, students calculated the area needed for various size buildings and structures and then used flags to map out spaces that the theoretical structures would occupy.


students measuring with flags


Capitol’s faculty were pleased with the turnout of this first STEM Challenge event, and are already planning ways to enhance the challenge for next year. The event successfully showed the endless ways in which technology can make life exciting, and Capitol Tech will continue to provide opportunities for the next generation of young learners to get inspired.