Inside the Student Services Center in Northwest Florida State College last week, groups of Walton County students are busy flipping chairs over and binding things together with a massive amount of masking tape.
It looks like chaos, but it's actually the product of young minds at work for the FloridaLearns STEM Scholars.
"It's really cool," said Ashley Ellis, freshman at Walton High School who hopes to study pediatric oncology. "We get to use our creativity. We don't always get to do that in school. With these challenges, it helps provoke critical thinking and ingenuity."
The activity at hand was to construct a roller coaster model using only pipe insulation, masking tape and a meter stick in two hours. Students from Freeport, South Walton, Walton and Paxton were randomly divided into small groups to come up with their design with only a few parameters.
"We kind of toss them together so they can socialize with students from other schools," says Brenda Crouch, a consultant with the Florida Learns Academy.
There's five minutes on the clock and most students are rushing to finish their projects. However, one group is starting all over. They quickly flip over chairs to help accommodate a jump in the roller coaster track model. Using a glass marble, they test the coaster to make sure the car will make the jump. It works.
"I'm not going to look at chairs the same way again," says Crouch.
When time was called, each of the six groups presented their final project. There are no real grades given, but Crouch and fellow FloridaLearns instructors keep tabs on requirements such as design, height, time and coaster name. Bonus points are given for loops, 90-degree turns and corkscrews.
After points were tallied it was Group 2, and their coaster named The Devil's Drop, that came out winning.
"We kind of designed the roller coaster on the fly," said South Walton High School Sophomore, Logan Daniel.
"We finished with like 26 minutes left," added Paxton High School Sophomore Krysten Pazik.
The program behind the non-traditional classroom activity is Florida's Rural STEM Education Initiative, which is offered through a grant as part of the Florida Department of Education's Race to the Top program. Twice a semester, gifted and talented students enrolled in the program are treated to a day to exercise their minds in the STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — curriculum.
As students downstairs build roller coasters, another group of Walton County students are upstairs for a leadership development seminar led by Barbara Britt, a certified motivational speaker.
Britt started the seminar by making students dance into the room while Pharrell's "Happy" played in the background.
"The whole focus is self-esteem," explained Britt. "The number one factor in life is self-image and 70 percent of people have a low-self image."
Britt helped illustrate her points sharing YouTube videos featuring internationally known speakers such as Les Brown and Nick Vujicic.
"I want students to realize not to let other people validate them," Britt explained.
The goal of the day, said Crouch, is to encourage students to consider a career in these fields.
“These jobs are high-paying and in high demand,” she said. “So much of the innovation in this country lies on the shoulders of STEM professionals. And innovation drives the economy."