Makayla Stewart still can’t believe that her sixth-grade class from Picayune, Miss., built a robot to help her hometown clean its public drains.
And that they won a national scholastic technology award for their efforts, the only elementary school to do so.
“We’ve worked on it for a really long time,” said Makayla, who, with her teacher, attended the awards ceremony Wednesday in the nation’s capital to represent her class.
They worked on the project “Tuesday through Thursday almost every week,” the 11-year-old said during the event.
The sixth-graders from Nicholson Elementary School in Picayune, a town of nearly 11,000 in Pearl County near the southern tip of Mississippi, beat competitors from 3,100 schools to became one of the five national winners of the 2015 Samsung Solve For Tomorrow contest.
The prize was nearly $140,000 in cash and technology equipment for their school.
“I don’t know if you know where Picayune, Mississippi, is,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said at the awards ceremony. “But I think this is a credit to the community, to the teachers and to the students who excellently put the project together and won the award.”
The Samsung competition encourages students to improve their communities with projects involving skills drawn from their work in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, known as the STEM subjects.
Makayla’s team had some help.
A Pearl County robotics team composed of local high school students showed the class how to use tools. NASA provided a webinar to explain the engineering basics. The town offered funding to help build the robot.
Their robot surveys city drains to help municipal officials identify potential problems and develop solutions. In addition, it could possibly save the city money that otherwise would be spent on digging up roads to figure out where and why drains are clogged, the students said in a video that accompanied their work. From talking to people at City Hall, the class knew that blocked pipes were often the cause.
Mississippi is one of the rainiest states in the U.S, according to Current Results, a website tracking official weather data. Located close to the Alligator Branch stream and the Pearl River, flooding has been a recurring problem in Picayune.
“It is amazing that my students took it seriously and they went with it,” said Maureen Pollitz, Makayla’s teacher in a gifted studies class since second grade.
Pollitz said the school intends to use the prize money to bring more technology to the classroom, especially to help students who don’t have computers at home.
Mississippi ranked near the very bottom of innovative states in 2013, based on the amount of STEM professionals and tech companies, according to Bloomberg. Nicholson Elementary, however, is near NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center, whose scientists and officials often participate in the school’s STEM-related activities.
“I’m hoping this award will encourage our state that STEM education is important,” said Pollitz.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the name of the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest.