Sixty middle school students gathered in an Oregon State University-­Cascades classroom Tuesday morning, learning how to use coding programs and sensory technology to find solutions for space colonists 80 years in the future.

These students and many computer science teachers from the Bend-La Pine and Redmond school districts were a part of the fourth Make-a-Thon, sponsored by High Desert Educational Service District and hosted by OSU-Cascades. The students — from Tumalo Community School, Terrebonne Community School, Three Rivers School in Sunriver and La Pine Middle School — were split into groups and given a lab kit and an iPad. The kits included sensors and buttons that, if programmed correctly on the corresponding iPad app, could make a buzzer go off, an LED bulb light up or a motor start using pressure, light or a sliding knob.

Then, the students were presented with a sci-fi scenario: They were explorers in the year 2098 living on the planet Zorax. After catastrophic events on Earth, many inexperienced settlers are flooding Zorax’s colony, and the students were tasked with solving these new colonists’ issues, such as building touch-activated technology to conserve electricity or creating an alarm system to alert farmers if carnivorous aliens tried to eat their livestock.

Angie Mason-Smith, executive director of Central Oregon STEM Hub, a branch of High Desert ESD, said a major component of the students’ designs was empathizing with the colonists’ situations. She said using that emotional skill will help students become better problem-solvers as adults.

“When you think of what industry is looking for, it’s these problem solvers, these thinkers, makers and creators,” she said.

Mike Nye, Redmond’s coordinator of professional learning who acted as the event’s emcee, said the event’s quick pace was intentional, as students had to teach themselves how to use the lab kits. The intensity of the “fast and furious” Make-a-Thon helped keep kids invested, he added.

“They don’t even have time to get off-task or grab their phone. You just had 60 middle school students in one spot, and I didn’t see one cellphone, which is kind of amazing,” Nye said. “When the kids have the opportunity to design and solve problems, that’s their jam.”

Nye said the event was also useful for the various computer science teachers from Bend-La Pine and Redmond who visited, as both districts have lab kits that teachers can check out and use in their own classrooms.

Evelyn Lance, a seventh-grader at Tumalo, built an alarm with a group using a sensor that measures when water levels reach a certain height.

“You get to be creative with it and experiment with things you’ve never worked with before,” Evelyn, 13, said. “And you get to work with people you’ve never met.”

Sixth-grader Edison Medlock, 11, of Terrebonne, agreed, saying he liked that “you can do anything” with the kits.

Mason-Smith joked that students were so skilled at the technical aspects of the projects that they quickly moved onto worrying about how their new devices looked.

“One of the kids said earlier, ‘I feel like our design is really strong, but I think we need to work on our aesthetic appeal,’” she said, laughing.

According to Nye and Scott McDonald, an instructional technology coach with Bend-La Pine Schools, rural students were chosen due to more centralized schools in Bend and Redmond getting to participate in previous Make-a-Thon events. Nye added that although Tumalo and Terrebonne have computer science classes like Redmond’s two middle schools, there are still fewer computer science-based electives in those schools due to drastically smaller staffing.

At the end of the event, Nye told the students they “blew my mind.” OSU-­Cascades computer science professor Yong Bakos told the kids that the skills they just learned could help solve real-world problems in the future.

“Although we start with play, from play comes creativity, and from creativity comes solutions,” he said. “What our world needs are solutions.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854,