BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Eighth-grader Cayla Adams sports a red batting helmet as she steps onto a baseball diamond in Belleville, Ill.
But Cayla wasn’t stepping up to bat. Instead, she climbs into a large, blue hovercraft designed by fellow Belle Valley eighth-grade students. She successfully completes a lap around the field before the supervising adults realize a couple essential bolts had fallen off.
After a quick run to get two more bolts, Emge Junior High student Tyler Adams mans the hovercraft. He gets off to a rocky start getting stuck in the grass twice, but he quickly gets the hang of maneuvering the hovercraft in circles around the baseball diamond.
After making several laps, Tyler emerges from the hovercraft covered in dust from the field. “It was fun,” he exclaims.
Nigel Rice, who is also an eighth-grader at Emge, commands the hovercraft next. Afterward, he wobbles out. “I can’t feel my legs,” he says.
Cayla, Tyler and Nigel were among 18 students from Harmony-Emge, Signal Hill and Belle Valley school districts who participated in a two-week STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Camp for academically talented and highly motivated students. The students participating in the program were selected by district officials. The program ended Friday with the demonstration of the hovercrafts.
“It’s an enrichment program to challenge some of the kids that are already at the top of their grade levels,” explained Camp Director Bryan Snow, the technology director for both Harmony and Signal Hill school districts.
During the camp, a collaboration among all three schools districts, the students learned about and constructed hovercrafts.
Snow described a hovercraft as “an air cushion vehicle that uses a skirt and airflow to pick it up off the surface and also to propel it.”
He said a hovercraft is different from an airboat, which is pushed through the water with a propellor.
“With the hovercraft, you are actually flying over the top of whatever surface you are on,” Snow said. “It’s one of the very few amphibious vehicles.”
Every morning of the camp, the students learned about science and math principles that govern how a hovercraft works including lift, thrust and buoyancy at Emge Junior High.
During the afternoon portion of the program, the students worked on constructing a hovercraft with help from Snow, teachers Jill Mathenia from Ellis Elementary School, Matt Zipfel from Signal Hill, and Josh Strausbaugh from Belle Valley and AmeriCorps volunteer Sarah James.
“All the kids have been really excited to build every day,” Snow said. “We have a good group of kids.”
The students worked in teams of six to build a hovercraft. Each team consisted of two students from each of the school districts. The teams—Superman, The Force and Rocketman Rockets—were named by the students.
The large hovercrafts, which were 6 foot by 4 foot, were built using Styrofoam, plywood, Fiberglas, bolts, nuts, screws and a lot of Gorilla glue, Zipfel said, and rubber tubing for the skirt underneath.
The ultralight propellor and the small gas-powered engine were the only two items not constructed by the students. Zipfel said the hovercrafts have the potential to travel up to 30 mph.
The teams put their hovercraft creations to the test during land competition Friday at Belle Valley. Camp organizers opted not to test the devices on water.
Signal Hill eighth-grader Annabelle Heddell said her team’s hovercraft, a red one built by Rocketman Rockets, made it through over an hour of competition before a propeller mishap occurred and took it out of commission.
The hovercraft for the Superman team didn’t make it into the competition, Cayla said. It was used for parts to help the other hovercrafts. “We weren’t very good at measurements,” she admitted.
Cayla and Nigel said they both enjoyed getting to meet students from other schools.
“It was fun getting to meet a lot of new people with the same interests,” Cayla said.
Even though this was the first year for the program locally, Snow operated a similar program when he was at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
The cost of the two-week program was covered by a grant from the National Defense Education Program thanks to the efforts of Cynthia Doil at Scott Air Force Base.
“The earlier we get students interested in science and math,” Doil said, the more likely they are to pursue a career in those fields.
Organizers of the program have already secured some funding to do the hovercraft camp again next summer, according to Snow. In addition, he said it may be expanded to accommodate more students.
Overall, Tyler said the experience was fun. “I learned new things I didn’t know before,” he said.