Huddled in teams of four, about 50 fifth-grade students hunched over tables stocked with everything from construction paper to foam tubing and rubber bands.

Their task: to design a miniature bumper car that can keep a plastic, water-filled egg from breaking in a collision with other cars.

The Maple Grove Elementary School students were some of the first to visit Center Grove’s new Innovation Center. To better prepare students for careers in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields, Center Grove recently spent more than $1 million to renovate a former maintenance garage, turning it into a STEM lab.

To complete their experiment at the center, the fifth-graders were given the base of a car frame with four wheels, along with an assortment of supplies you might find in a “MacGyver” episode, including aluminum foil, Popsicle sticks and cotton balls. They had about 30 minutes to secure a plastic egg to the base of the car.

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Around one table, Joey Schmitz, Isaiah Williamson, Reese Grounds and Sophia Kroll discussed their plan.

Schmitz and Williamson taped Popsicle sticks to the front of the car and then stuck the foam tube through them to create a bumper. Grounds and Kroll worked to keep the plastic egg in place with the rubber band and cotton.

They even personalized their egg, giving it eyes, a nose and a mouth.

“To see them so engaged and so active is amazing,” said Betsy Leavitt, a fifth-grade teacher at Maple Grove Elementary School.

Once all the cars were built, the students placed them on four intersecting ramps to watch them collide and hopefully stay in one piece. Only a few of the plastic-eggs split in half, and a couple cars were unfortunate enough to lose a wheel or two.

The students had spent the last week learning about kinetic and potential energy and getting a chance to see those lessons play out in real life is important, Leavitt said.

They were able to do small-scale experiments with matchbox cars in their classrooms, but the Innovation Center gave them the opportunity to do activities that wouldn’t fit in the classroom, she said.

“It’s a unique opportunity for the kids,” she said. “Engineering is a foreign word to them.”

At the beginning of the day, STEM Instructional Coach Matt Ehresman began his lesson by talking to the students about two famous American inventors: Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

The message Ehresman wanted to impart to the students: failure is OK, as long as you are able to learn from it. That lesson is an essential one for students learning about STEM fields, he said. A common acronym used by teachers FAIL, first attempt in learning, Ehresman said.

Every Center Grove student from kindergarten to eighth grade will make the trip to the Innovation Center at least once during the 2016-17 school year. Depending on what classes they are taking, high school students at Center Grove will have the chance to use the new facility as well.

The building has dividable classroom space that students can use for their experiment and a collaboration space with whiteboards where students can work in small or large groups.

Teachers are able to use an electronic tablet to put information on TV screens located around the experiment room or stream a video of an experiment happening on one side of the room so all the students can see it.

Red Alert Robotics, the Center Grove robotics team, also has a permanent home at the Innovation Center. In previous years, students would have to test their machines out in the high school hallways or empty classrooms.

At a glance

To better prepare students for careers in science and technology fields, Center Grove added an Innovation Center this year.

Where: Next to Center Grove High School, off Morgantown Road

What: Students from kindergarten through high school will have classes and experiments at the facility. It also will the the home for the Red Alert Robotics team.

Cost: More than $1 million

When: Classes at the Innovation Center began this fall.

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Jacob Tellers is a reporter at the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2702.