NYAS Participates in NGX Challenge—and So Can You!

Guest blogger Stephanie Wortel works at the New York Academy of Sciences as the Program Manager for the Afterschool STEM Mentoring Fellowship in New York City and Newark, NJ, which teaches young scientists to be better educators through experiences in middle grades afterschool programs. She is also a PhD student at Stony Brook University in their Science Education program and conducts research on learning in informal environments. Stephanie shares her expert advice on how to facilitate the NGX Challenge in an informal learning setting. 

Sky cranes! Disaster mitigation! Arial Photography! No, I am not talking about the latest Michael Bay blockbuster. I write instead about what happened when one hundred middle-school roboticists from all five boroughs of New York City came to the New York Academy of Sciences on March 15 to engage in the National Geographic Kids Engineering Exploration (NGX) Challenge and to build robots out of Legos. The atmosphere of the day was charged with excitement and collaboration, and this was especially apparent in the Board Room where about 20 participants tried their hand at the “Eye in the Sky Engineering Challenge (Challenge 2).”

Image courtesy New York Academy of Sciences
Image courtesy New York Academy of Sciences

The Eye in the Sky NGX Challenge required the children, most of whom were between the ages of 11-13, to design a system that could raise a camera at least 10 feet in the air and get the camera back down safely (an experiment that mimics a problem an actual wildlife photographer might encounter while out in the field), all while the young engineers stayed put on the ground.

As with the other challenges and activities taking place that day, the National Geographic Kids Engineering Exploration Challenge offered students a real-world problem that encouraged them to think creatively, make use of their problem-solving skills, and, perhaps most importantly, figure out how to work with a team to both create and refine their ideas. At the Academy we love to give the young people and mentors that we work with the opportunity to not only think about real scientific and engineering challenges, but also to put them directly in touch with professional scientists who can serve as role models and who can also ask questions that help students in their work. This event was no exception!

Image courtesy New York Academy of Sciences
Image courtesy New York Academy of Sciences

Here are my top three tips for incorporating the NGX Challenge into an existing event you might be planning:

1. Be prepared!

On the day of the event, much of the students’ time was spent building a ten-foot structure that would support the mechanisms by building up from available ladders. In place of a camera (which would be an expensive thing to drop repeatedly) the students used a soap box. Ahead of time, the staff of the New York Academy of Sciences’ Education and Public Programs Department gathered an assortment of “Urban Junk” from hardware and dollar stores to provide a materials arsenal from which to build.

2. Have “space” for the students to get creative.

NGX Challenge 2
Image courtesy New York Academy of Sciences

NYAS’ point person for the NGX Challenge, Joe Melendez, noted that the indoor setting initially restricted how high the students could go with their inventions, but then ingenuity kicked in. Designs ranged widely! There were long poles with hooks attached to the end that could be used to raise and lower a camera. There were pulley and zip line systems, and everything in between. Most student participants noted that the best approach to creating was to design and then re-design. They could get the camera up, but where was it pointing? Time to redesign and find ways to stabilize the camera.

3. Encourage collaboration

At the end of the day, students were exhausted from presenting research projects, building Lego robots to assist in times of natural disaster, and networking with attending engineers and scientists. Even so, many new friendships were born, as students were collaborating with partners from their own teams and even from other teams, to creatively engineer a solution to a National Geographic Explorer’s problem!


NYAS believes that providing opportunities for informal education is one of the best ways to inspire excitement about the learning process. By providing a framework—such as the National Geographic Kids  Engineering Exploration Challenge—students have to work within set parameters, yet they are free to get as creative as they want in terms of coming up with solutions to the challenge. This is the beauty of informal education—skill-building and practice, while happening in a very real way, is an afterthought when students are having fun and engaging in active problem solving.


To see more of solutions to NGX Challenge 2: Eye in the Sky from the New York Academy of Sciences Robotics Scrimmage, visit their Facebook album. To participate in the Eye-in-the-Sky Challenge, visit NatGeoEd.org/NGX. Submit your solutions to National Geographic by May 1st, 2014 for an invite to an exclusive Google+ Hangout with National Geographic Engineers and a chance to have your solution tested live on air! 


Written by Stephanie Wortel, New York Academy of Sciences 

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