Alana Grace Haney, 4, and her father, Chris, watch their marshmallow pyramid withstand a gust from a hair dryer at Stone-Robinson Elementary's Design Challenge Night. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

More than 100 parents joined their children at Stone-Robinson Elementary School’s Design Challenge Night on Tuesday to experience Albemarle County Public Schools’ maker curriculum firsthand.

Stone-Robinson Principal Kristen Williams said that the school started hosting the event in 2016 — her first year as principal — to help parents better understand the hands-on learning activities their children did during the school day.

“It’s like a flipped science fair,” Williams said. “It’s not about the product. It’s about the process.”

“It shows parents how their kids think and work together when they are designing,” she added. “It might help them start conversations with their child about what they did in school that day.”

On Tuesday, Stone-Robinson students and their parents could choose from 15 different design challenges while moving freely about the school.

In one classroom, students built miniature suspension bridges with popsicle sticks and cardboard tubing. In the school’s makerspace, students used a 3-D printer to make abstract art.

Another classroom featured a bowling game with Ozobots — tiny spherical robots that can follow hand-drawn marker lines and respond to different color codes.

Students also used computers to play “Minecraft” and create new designs for the school’s play-ground with modeling software.

“When events like this can get kids excited and engaged, they will learn more,” Williams said.

Diane Goodrich, Stone-Robinson’s librarian for 36 years, said that during her career she has witnessed a transformation in how teachers and students use the school library.

“The library doesn’t just hand out books now,” Goodrich said. “It’s a place where students can find answers to questions with books, technology and hands-on projects.”

“It’s been really exciting to be a part of all that change,” she said.

Goodrich hosts “Tinker Time” in the library every two weeks. Students from the third through fifth grades engage in creative play with Etch A Sketch toys, building blocks, a weaving loom and more.

In the library on Tuesday, fourth-grader Dalajah Chapman proudly pointed to a cardboard sculpture of a dog that she and her friends had built and labeled with examples of different forms of energy.

“It’s potential energy when the dog is not moving, and kinetic energy when it is moving,” she said.

In the cafeteria, Ryan Davidson and Tamarius Thomas made a tin-foil raft that kept 258 pennies afloat on a tub of water, surpassing the night’s previous high total.

Davidson said the raft’s large surface area and the careful spacing of the pennies was key to its success.

“It was so big, and it had a lot of space for the pennies,” she said.

Williams said that Ryan and Tamarius’ work to build the raft exemplified the benefits of making in the classroom.

“Those two kids spent a lot of time collaborating and communicating to build something that worked,” Williams said. “The workforce isn’t like it used to be. Jobs are so varied now, and kids need all kinds of skills in order to be successful.”

The University of Virginia P-12 Engineering Education outreach program supported the “Money Floats Challenge,” as well as one that had students build a small solar oven for nachos with a card-board pizza box.

Susan Donohue, an engineering lecturer at the university, said it was important to make science, technology, engineering and math exciting at an early age.

“We are hoping that the fun they have tonight will carry over to their STEM studies,” she said. “We can’t wait until high school to get kids excited about this.”

“With these hands-on projects, students are often learning without realizing it,” Donohue said. “When it clicks with them, it’s just beautiful to see.”

Williams said that the county’s professional development for the maker curriculum helps teachers determine the appropriate level of support to offer students as they complete hands-on projects.

“That’s a shift in training for teachers,” Williams said.

Shannon Spaeder, mother of a third-grader, said she noticed differences from her own elementary education when she volunteered in her daughter’s classroom.

“Teachers are incorporating more technology, and there is more of an emphasis on student-led discovery and exploring,” Spaeder said.

Alexis Mason, a gifted resource teacher at Albemarle High School and a parent of a second-grader, said that she was supportive of student-led projects in elementary school.

 “You have to give kids freedom to explore and problem-solve,” Mason said. “A lot of times, they will surprise you. And it’s neat when they can explain their process — what they are thinking, and why.”

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.