Laramie River Station employee facilitates STEM education activities for third grade classrooms

Children lined up with catapults.
Michael Petera, Laramie River Station electrical engineer III, helped teach STEM skills to third grade classes in Wyoming.

In February, Michael Petera, electrical engineer III at Laramie River Station, worked with the University of Wyoming, College of Engineering and Physical Science’s (CEPS) STEM Education Outreach Office to facilitate STEM education activities for third graders.

When Petera noticed the empty slots for elementary schools in Yoder and Guernsey, Wyoming, he took it upon himself to fill them. This action came from a genuine urge to educate. “When they’re in elementary school, kids don’t know what engineers do,” Petera says. “They say, ‘engineers fix things,’ when that’s not true. Instead, we design things.”

Petera conducted two sessions, one on Feb. 20 at Southeast Elementary School in Yoder, Wyoming, and the other on Feb. 21 at Guernsey-Sunrise Elementary School in Guernsey, Wyoming.

Teams were comprised of three to four third graders who worked together to create a working catapult. Petera let the kids take the reins, letting their creativity shine rather than giving them strict instructions. Students used straws, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, spoons, and tape to create a catapult of their own design. Targets were set upon the ground and students slung Nerf balls in hopes of striking true with their new creation.

“What I found most interesting is how they all worked together,” Petera says. “In engineering you want to have a cohesive effort, and that’s what we saw from these kids.” Petera says the kids he worked with didn’t have any pre-conceived notions. They were just excited to create. “They all wanted to do something, and they all wanted to create their projects. They were just having fun,” he says.

At the end of the program, the third graders already had ideas on how to improve their projects. “One said that launching balls of fire out of their catapult would be a major improvement,” Petera says. This highlighted the importance of the program. “It taught these kids that this is only the beginning of what they can do,” he says.

The education sessions were put on by the University of Wyoming, College of Engineering and Physical Science’s STEM Education Outreach Office in celebration of National Engineers Week, which was Feb. 18 through 25. The program aims to raise awareness about the field of engineering by introducing STEM concepts early in the K-12 educational experience.

Nationally, the Engineers Week was established in 1951 by the organization DiscoverE. In Wyoming, the program is soaring to new heights. “This year, 4,306, or 64%, of Wyoming’s third graders from 245 classes in 88 schools in 21 counties participated. One hundred and twenty-six professional engineers from 85 firms volunteered,” says Dr. Cindy Jones, Assistant Dean for Student Success in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, who organizes and coordinates Wyoming’s Engineers Week.

Engineer’s Week is an important driving force for the integration of the program. It offers early exposure to STEM, hands-on learning, career awareness, community engagement, and more. “Overall, Engineers Week outreach for Wyoming’s third graders lays a foundation for future interest and involvement in engineering,” says Jones. “It contributes to the development of a skilled workforce and fostering innovation and progress in the state.”

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