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STEM day has Windsor High School students designing simulated humanitarian aid drops

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Mariana Patino carefully hot-glued pipe cleaners, cardboard, Popsicle sticks, straws and the bottom half of a plastic bottle Thursday morning, fashioning a device to protect an egg that she planned to drop from 20 feet above.

The design was part of an engineering challenge for 200 Windsor High School students at the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport. Freshmen and sophomore students were challenged to simulate a humanitarian aid drop in vulnerable regions by flying an egg and dropping it on a target below without breaking.

“It’s really fun. You get to be more creative and it’s a big challenge using certain materials,” said Patino, 16.

Juniors and seniors in Windsor High School’s Axis STEM Academy served as mentors for the younger students, who worked in groups of four to six. The hands-on engineering day allowed the students to step outside the classroom and put theory into action.

“This isn’t just memorizing facts. This is real-world learning that demands innovation of those facts. Students get to work as a team and tackle problems with no clear answer,” said Sean Vezino, Windsor High engineering teacher.

Sabrina Piana, a junior, led a team that considered making an airplane or parachute, but after Piana explained the complexities of the airplanes, they chose to go with a glider made out of a plastic sheet, wooden dowels and cardboard.

“I’m learning how to guide them without telling them what to do,” said Piana, 17.

The materials students had to work with — clothing pins, mouse traps, paper cups, steel wires, paper, string, wood, aluminum foil and more — weren’t particularly soft, which made it more of a challenge, Piana said.

“In the end it all comes together to create something new,” Piana said.

Students were given a design brief that listed Doctors Without Borders, the nonprofit medical aid group, as their client. Its access to some strife-torn regions has been cut off, stemming the flow of medical assistance and supplies to vulnerable populations. The challenge to students: How to deliver aid to those people in need?

It takes an engineer, the students learned.

“Putting a design out is like giving a piece of your mind and yourself to the world. It could help a lot of people,” said Piana, an aspiring biological technician or genetic engineer. “I want to help people.”

Piana was one of a handful of girls in her STEM courses at the start of the school year, and she would like to see more women in science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields, she said.

“It’s not hard, but it’s intimidating at first,” she said.

Students worked in the historic Redwood airplane hangar of the Sonoma Jet Center, which serves private airplanes at the county airport. It was a familiar setting for Windsor High senior Tyler Crellin, who volunteers there to work on older airplanes.

Crellin is 18 and he’s learned everything from engine overhaul to welding in his volunteer work. On Thursday he served as a mentor to freshman and sophomores participating in the challenge and thinking critically about how to make gliders and airplanes fly.

“I think it really sparks interest in the younger kids,” said Crellin, who plans to be an airplane mechanic.

The school also worked with the Pacific Coast Air Museum to hold the design and engineering day. Tony Bassignani helps with museum maintenance work and he was on hand Thursday for setup and cleanup. The energy in the hangar was palpable, he said.

“It’s fantastic there’s so many kids interested in this,” Bassignani said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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