ITHACA — If you visit DeWitt Middle School on a Tuesday or Thursday after 3:30 p.m. and find your way to the technology engineering lab, you will stumble upon a group of students who are hard at work building CO2 dragsters, designing computer games and other STEM activities (science, technology, engineering and math).

From Thursday, June 27, to Wednesday, July 3, these students will head off to a national competition against 5,000 other TSAers — which will include TSA competitors from several other countries including Germany and Peru — in Orlando, Fla.

The 23 DeWitt students are part of the DeWitt Middle School chapter of TSA — Technology Student Association — an international organization with more than 180,000 participating middle and high school students. Members of TSA participate in diverse number of events ranging from digital photography and structural engineering to system control technology, prepared speech and promotional design at regional, state and national competitions. Ithaca has chapters/teams at DeWitt Middle School and Ithaca High School.

Each chapter has its own student officers — present, vice-president, reporter, secretary and sergeant-at-arms. In turn, there are state officers — also students—who run the state organization that includes the individual chapters. Then students from different state organizations are elected by their peers to serve as national officers.

“It’s a big deal, it’s a really big deal,” said Evie Weinstein, of the students running for national officer position.

Weinstein is the state advisor for New York State, meaning she is responsible for working with all the state officers and chapters.

“When they have anything that they need, they come to me,” she said, who first got involved with TSA when her son joined the DeWitt chapter during his 8th grade year.

TSA is in 48 states across the country, and while at schools like DeWitt and IHS the program is an afterschool activity, in some states like Florida, TSA is the tech curriculum for the school. And for most chapters, TSA advisors are usually teachers, according to Weinstein, but in states with smaller participation the advisors can also be parents or even simply the state advisor.

A Little Background

DeWitt has been a member of TSA for 25 years, and for a long time it was one of the only schools that sent students to the state competition, according to Weinstein.

The beauty of TSA, according to Bob Walters, co-mentor of DeWitt TSA and technology engineering teacher at DeWitt, is the diversity of the events students can participate in. Walters taught at the high school for two years before arriving at DeWitt in 1985. He started a tech club when he arrived, and when he found out about TSA a couple years later he turned the club into a TSA chapter.

“Nobody builds things in a factory like that in this country anymore,” said Walters of the movement in education to develop 21st century skills. “What people need to do is they need to be able to identify and solve problems and work in groups and be adaptable. And that’s what these kids are doing. We’re providing an opportunity. We’re answering questions, but we’re not directing them.”

DeWitt TSA has use of two large lab rooms, filled with traditional shop machines like sanders and band saws, as well as the advanced, modern machinery like a Zing laser cutter and engraver and a CNC Router.

David Buchner, a technology engineering teacher at DeWitt and the co-advisor for DeWitt TSA for the last 24 years, said they use the same CAD (computer-aided design) software as the high school.

“It allows the kids to be consistent as they move towards the high school, especially if they want to choose some of the pre-engineering classes that we have at the high school,” he said.

In addition to the large workrooms, the TSA students have access to a computer lab comprised of 24 macs with partition hard drives, allowing them to use the necessary engineering software.

“We’ve got video games being designed,” said Buchner. “A lot of the things that we do require documentation and write-ups, some sort of historical write up on it.”

Students use Game Maker and Game Editor if they are interested in designing their own computer games.

“The only thing that limits you is experience and creativity,” said Buchner of all the equipment available for the students to use.

“They’re using real high tech, sophisticated tools and machines and traditional sophisticated tools and machines and they’re collaborating, they’re doing group work,” said Walters.

Students can choose events like flight.

“You have to build a glider out of balsa wood,” said Robert Buchanan, an 8th grader who participated in the event at states and will participate again at nationals. “But the difference for the states and the nationals is that for nationals you have to build on site within a time limit.”

In Orlando he will have to bring pictures of gliders he already made and the log of their flight times. He will have to build a new glider in one day and trim and fly it on day two.

Students participating in the agriculture and biotechnology event research current technology

Eighth-grader Fiona Okuma is part of the group working on a write up for that event. Since members of her group are involved in other projects, time management and balancing projects becomes a challenge.

“They’re working diligently and hard on them,” she said. “It’s really hard to figure out how much time you can spend on this and that.”

Okuma is competing in three other events as well, one of which is tech talk.

“It’s a national event you do at nationals itself, so you don’t do any work beforehand,” she explained. “You’re given materials and you’re told to build something. You’re with a partner and you’re in one room and your partner is in another room with other kids in TSA. Your task is to build what they tell you to build. You build something but the partner in the other room has to build what you just built.”

Directions to your partner have to be sent via text message and the two items have to be as close to identical as possible. Last year the challenge was to build a slingshot out of popsicle sticks and tape. Okuma said they would have placed with a trophy, but points were taken off because the logo was not on the same side.

Felix Shi, a 6th grader who serves as DeWitt’s secretary, said he likes the diversity of the events he can participate.

“A lot of them involve code,” he said. “One of the events I’m doing is system control, it’s a mixture of problem solving and vex.”

Vex is a competition similar to the what Ithaca’s Code Red Robotics team does, where students build a robot (vex) and try to get bean bags to certain points.

Elen Uchigasaki, a 6th grader, is doing promotion design.

“I really like art so I get to create my own designs in TSA,” she said.

There is also web site design, medical technology issues, multimedia production and prepared speech. For some popular events, like carbon dioxide dragsters, there is a limit for how many students from each team can participate.

Walters said he and Buchner do not tell their students the individual steps they need to do for each event. Instead, it is incumbent upon the students to read the pages of rules for the event they are participating in to ensure they know what is expected of them. They also have access to the rubric of what they will be rated on in the event

“They’ve got to be self-directed. And the kids get that experience, they’re just not getting it in a lot of other places,” said Walters.

Dependent on the event, students can work on projects for several months.

Paul Fisher-York, a 7th grader, developed a dragster that won first place at the state competition, earning him a spot at nationals.

“It’s small wooden car that’s propelled by a carbon dioxide canister,” he said. “I entered the state competition and won with a different dragster, but it was damaged so I’m making a new one.”

He only started with TSA this year, but said he hopes to participate next year.

“I like being in an environment with other people with similar interests,” Fisher-York said.

For other events that are not done in New York, like the medical research event and the Go Green Manufacturing event, the students work on the projects for the event during a shorter time-span.

“It’s a shame there aren’t more teams in New York,” said Walters. “We’ve come back from the competitions and done a debrief, and kids say they want more competition. We’re always trying to get more schools involved. Because it’s not kids answering questions on a test so they can get into college. It’s kids doing something that is real valuable for the rest of their life and certainly their career.”

In addition to the technical, hands-on experience kids get access to in TSA, with group events like Go Green Manufacturing and the Construction Challenge, they also gain valuable life skills including leadership and collaboration while engaging individual interests.

For the Go Green Manufacturing Challenge, six students have to make a product out of an item that’s post-consumer or that would either be recycled or thrown out.

DeWitt TSA is making belts with a wooden belt buckle, engraved with a design by Freya Ryd, an 8th grader.

The competition is not just about showing the finished product. Students must put together a business plan, show a production flow chart and the different steps of the manufacturing process.

“We have to create production plans and we need to show that we actually created these and we’re submitting a binder and example product,” said Ryd, who is the DeWitt reporter. “Then they judge based on how we organized ourselves and the quality and marketability of our product.”

“Much like anything that you want to manufacture as a sellable product, they need to organize all the infrastructure that supports that, not only the business model, but the actual manufacturing process itself,” said Buchner.

The other larger group project is the Construction Challenge, which DeWitt has received a first place for twice in the past. This year, the students will build a new ramp, fitting ADA Guidelines, for the composting toilet at the Finger Lakes Forest campsite. The title of the project is Enabling the Disabled.

But getting the ramp out to the site will be a challenge since they will have to walk about a quarter mile into the woods since no vehicles are allowed. The students working on the project will head out to the woods this weekend to put the ramp into place.

“You’re not going to go into a job and take a test,” said Walters of how TSA benefits students. “I don’t mean to belittle what people are doing in other subjects, but they’re doing real stuff. When people see, when the parents see it, we get the support because they see the kids so engaged. We’ve had kids who I’m sure have stayed in school because of TSA.”

Getting In

Because of the popularity of the program at DeWitt there is a six-step application process to become part of the team.

Fisher-York said the most difficult part of the process is the task of creating your own package to mail a potato chip to the school.

“You have to make your own packaging for a potato chip that will survive intact after being mailed to DeWitt through the USPS,” he explained.

Instructions on how the package was created must be included.

“We’ve done that because we’re looking for people who are good problem solvers and good with their hands and that cuts down the numbers, but we could cut it down more,” said Walters.

Other steps on the application include doing some type of community service at the school, obtaining two letters of reference from adults who are not family and writing a short essay on why they want to participate.

Problem solving individually and in a group is also tested through two additional challenges.

For the individual problem, the student is asked to make a tower out of a certain number of sheets of paper to hold as many textbooks as possible. The group challenge asks students to protect cherry tomatoes from the Tomato Smasher — a hammer with a long arm that slams down — with just a few sheets of paper. The score is calculated by multiplying the number of tomatoes saved by how many centimeters high the hammer is.

The application process happens at the beginning of the year. Due to the program’s popularity, there was a hope that Boynton Middle School students could participate on the DeWitt team, start their own or at least have two DeWitt teams, but due to TSA regulations only the one middle school chapter at DeWitt is allowed. Boynton does have its own program called the Science Olympiad, which competes at the New York State Mid-State Regional Competition in 24 STEM-based events.

Since there is a TSA chapter at Ithaca High School, in addition to the Code Red team, Walters said typically students do go on to participate in one or the other.

“The kids that are in TSA at the high school, almost all of them but not all of them, were in TSA here,” he said.

It is possible to do both, but it is a tremendous time commitment.

Zak Stillman, a freshmen at IHS who started participating in TSA at DeWitt in 6th grade, participates in both Code Red and TSA.

“They all work together on one project,” explained Stillman of the difference between Code Red and TSA. “While both of them are teams, on Code Red, they all work on the robot and publicity of the robot and things like that. And they do that from that one build. TSA does a lot of different things. So some people may be working on dragsters, while others will be working on making video.”

Tiffany Zheng, an IHS senior and vice present of the New York State TSA, likened Code Red to a team sport like basketball or soccer, and TSA as track and field, which has both individual events and group events like relays.

“Code Red gives the experience of working on a real big project team,” added Stillman. “Whereas TSA is more nurturing your skills individually as well as in teams and getting to work with other people as well but in smaller groups.”

“It’s great because they didn’t used to have a high school team and now they do,” said Walters. “It’s fabulous because kids have something to look forward to moving into.”

Anton Volkmann, a junior and chapter president at Ithaca High School, has done TSA for the last four years, beginning in 8th grade at DeWitt.

“TSA is very important to me because it allows me to pursue something that I really love, which is technology,” he said. “And I think that’s one of the beauties for everyone with TSA. Technology is so much more than working in a wood shop. The 60-plus events that TSA offers allows you to really investigate any career you wish to pursue and any interest type and participate.”

Okuma said she hopes to participate in TSA when she gets to the high school.

“I like it because it gives me things to do,” she said. “There’s school and there’s school work to do, but it can be more challenging and there’re more events to do. You get satisfaction knowing, ‘Hey I did this and to know that over 1000 members of TSA, I placed.’ School work doesn’t do that for you. And it’s really fun to learn the different tools it provides. I would never have learned how to use a band-saw, I would have been too scared. But now it’s, ‘OK, whatever, I can just cut this really quickly.’”

Tomer Ran-Ressler, a 7th grader, said he also hoped to participate next year.

“It’s challenging,” said Ran Ressler, DeWitt’s Sergeant-at-arms, “You have to do, not only the events and do it well, but you also have to balance homework.”

But that is why he likes it, he said.

“A lot of people in here are pretty smart and they don’t get the same challenge out of school that a lot of people do,” he said. “So it’s fun to do something challenging where the only limit is your own limits.

Part of the problem solving and experience students gain is time management. DeWitt normally practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 to 5:30, but as competitions draw closer, practices stretch to 8pm. Parents sign up to bring in dinners. Sometimes practices as expanded to other days of the week around competition time.

“We had a few kids who were just so bored in school, but they stayed in school because of TSA,” said Walters of how TSA can influence its participants. “The kids are developing the epitome of 21st century skills. They’re collaborating, they’re problem solving, they’re researching, they’re creating technology, they’re using technology.”

But the cost of traveling to the competition in the fall is not cheap — $996.81 per kid. In addition to the airfare, food, registration costs, the cost per child helps cover scholarships for TSAers who would not otherwise be able to participate.

Buchner and Walters said while the kids have done fundraising — bake sales, using the engraver to make plaques for area businesses, and building the set for the school play — the team still needs about $2,400 to make it to Orlando.

Those interested in helping the group get to the national competition can send a check made out to DeWitt Student Activities with TSA in the memo line to DeWitt Middle School. Any questions can be directed to Bob Walters at bwalters@icsd.k12.ny.us.

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