Students at Dewitt Middle School constructing hardening-off tables.

For some Ithaca middle school students designing, constructing and engineering are no longer tasks just for adults. 

Members of the DeWitt Middle School Technology Student Association (TSA) team designed and are in the process of renovating the campus greenhouse to compete in the Construction Challenge at the 2016 National TSA Conference June 28 through July 2. 

The greenhouse located at the middle school is used for educational purposes, specifically for students who have special needs. The team of seven students and students from the community-based-learning class are constructing new hardening-off tables and planters both used for seedlings as well as cleaning up pre-existing areas of the garden. 

“In the beginning we had no idea what to do [for the competition], but when we saw this place we knew this was what we needed to fix. We saw it was a mess and wanted to help,” eighth-grade student and Construction Challenge project manager Isabelle Zanen said. 

To compete in the Construction Challenge, students must identify a construction-related community need and address it with a combination of their leadership and technical skills. They are required to submit a scale model or prototype and a portfolio that documents their work. DeWitt Middle School TSA students will present their work at the national competition, which will be hosted in Nashville. 

Zanen, age 14, used computer-aided design (CAD) programs to design the hardening-off tables, planters, benches and a pyramid planter, divided into three levels for by those with a range of physical capabilities, that is to be put in the garden.

“Because I made the designs, I know the designs and the dimensions to create it. It was so amazing to see what I’ve been working on for two months to finally come together and actually be in front of me,” Zanen said. 

The Construction Challenge team began brainstorming ideas for the competition in the end of March. Fixing the greenhouse garden was considered as a top choice for the challenge after special-education teacher Patricia Armstrong brought attention to the garden’s need for improvements. 

“If [the greenhouse garden] is nicer and more beautiful and appealing, and actually useful for the kids, more people will use it. That’s the goal,” Zanen said. 

In order to compete in the competition, the students had to complete the Construction Challenge by June 24. David Buchner, who teaches sixth through eighth grade engineering, oversaw the project. He said the project was student-driven and he was there only to “steer” them in the right direction. 

Buchner said the program has been running since 1984, and the students have won over 600 trophies as a result. Out of the 48 states and six countries coming, he expects the students to place at least in the top ten. Dewitt students have received first place in the Construction Challenge twice before and have been in the top ten about every year since the middle school began the program. 

The Construction Challenge is only one out of 35 other competitions available at the conference. Other competitions that DeWitt Middle School TSA members and other school can enter include Digital Photography, Website Design, CAD Foundations and many more. 

“TSA students go way above and beyond what their general knowledge is of computer-aided design, robotics, electronics, programming and coding,” said Buchner. “We go really deep. These kids actually come out with sell-able skills and a number of them will go on to the engineering programs available at the high school.”

The TSA offers more than just set skills for the future, Buchner said. It’s not a program to create upcoming engineers but rather future outstanding citizens. He said that seeing these students, especially Isabelle Zanen, create and design such complex things inspires him. 

“Isabelle not only understands the basics of engineering, but her designs and ability to pull our group together is incredible to watch,” he said. 

The entire group is extremely sharp. Buchner said it is one of the most accelerated groups he has overseen in a long time. 

“They are so smart and so bright,” he said. “I think they really feel that they can make the world a better place. I have tremendous optimism when I see our young people and think, ‘Thank god we’ve got people like this who are going to replace me,’”

“I always ask,” Buchner said, “‘Who are going to be the engineers and designers? Who’s going to solve our problems of transportation and fossil fuels?’ All I have to do is look at these kids.” 



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