On Friday afternoons, many fifth-graders at Edison Intermediate/Larson Middle School are watching the clock.

But they aren't checking to see how much time is left before the weekend begins.

Instead, students are more likely to be checking to make sure they'll be able to get their weekly design challenge completed in the allotted time.

The design challenge is one of the weekly activities held as part of Fascination Fridays.

"We plan Fascination Fridays as a more-relaxed, change-of-pace day at school for our students," said fifth-grade social studies teacher Jenny Callif. "It's something that's a little different from the regular routine."

The day's activities are designed to extend the fifth-grade curriculum, she said.

For the design challenge, student teams are given a problem to solve and have 30 minutes to brainstorm and create a design, then build a prototype.

On Oct. 27, students were asked to design and build a "bone bridge" using up to 70 cotton swabs, 40 Popsicle sticks, 15 pipe cleaners, a strip of masking tape and an unlimited amount of yarn.

The goal was to build a bridge that was as long as possible and had gaps between the bridge planks small enough that a piece of candy corn could not fall though.

"Working together on a design challenge, students are learning about collaboration, creativity, problem solving and critical thinking," Callif said.

Students are grouped in different teams each week, she said.

"There's always a lot of spirited discussion," Callif said. "Sometimes it can get a little heated. Your idea is not always accepted by the rest of the group. They're learning about how to compromise."

Another recent challenge involved the construction of a Rube Goldberg machine, a complicated device designed to perform a simple act -- in this case, popping a balloon.

As part of each design challenge, teams give a presentation on their project, explaining why they chose their design and what went right and wrong in the process, Callif said.

A reading period also involves a book relating to that week's challenge, she said.

On Friday mornings, students work individually on research projects during a Genius Hour.

"It's a chance for them to work on a subject for which they have a passion," Callif said. "It's their passion time."

This year, fifth-graders are working on Genius Hour projects relating to scarcity.

"We had a brainstorming session with the students to come up with some initial ideas, but the students all picked their own project," Callif said.

The topics selected by students range from food scarcity and clean water to animal rights and access to education.

Students are researching their chosen topics and developing proposals for how the problems can be addressed.

Ellie Turner is researching issues relating to orphanages.

She said she was inspired to choose that topic by her fourth-grade teacher, who adopted an orphan.

"I'm looking into how orphanages treat kids and how it affects them to go through that kind of system," Ellie said. "I'm finding out that a lot of kids in orphanages don't know their birthdays because they were placed there when they were so young."

Many youngsters living in orphanages only have "hand-me-down" toys to play with or clothes to wear, she said.

"It's hard growing up without a parent," Ellie said. "I'm learning when they grow up, some of those kids become criminals and get in trouble."

Leva Fischer chose healthful foods in school lunches as her subject.

"When I see kids in our school cafeteria eating something like Lunchables, it makes me feel they aren't making good, healthy choices," she said.

Her initial research is showing a connection between eating healthfully and being successful at school, Leva said.

"It's harder to learn if you're not getting the nutrition you need," she said.

Leva said she hopes her project ultimately will result in more-healthful choices being offered in the Edison/Larson cafeteria.

"If we could have a salad bar put in, that would be awesome," she said.

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