Building Future Engineers: Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Christopher Grady Visits Walt Whitman Middle School for STEM Challenge

By Office of Communication and Community Relations
December 06, 2022

Students at Walt Whitman Middle School in Alexandria had the opportunity to impress the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Christopher W. Grady, as they demonstrated their engineering skills with a special STEM challenge on Monday. With only 30 sheets of paper and a roll of tape, students were instructed to create a tower that could support a can of tomatoes for one minute. Adm. Grady and his wife, Mrs. Christine Grady, traveled from the Pentagon to speak to students and test their designs.

“We’ve never seen a square design before! That’s a first!” Adm. Grady said as the first team of students placed the can of tomatoes atop their paper tower. 

Each student team was given a score calculated by the number of pieces of paper used (the fewer, the better), the height of the tower (the taller, the better), and if their tower successfully held the can for sixty seconds. Eighth grade students Zen Tran and Darpan Barua built the square structure that went on to win first place in the competition. 

“I thought a square shape would be best because when you see structures, they are usually squares,” Darpan said. “When you put weight on top, it stands up well.”

Adm. Grady helps measure the height of a tower.
Adm. Grady helps eighth grader Everett Paone measure the height of a tower. 

The STEM challenge was given to James Shabazz’s Engineering 2 class last week, giving the students only a few days to sketch their designs, build prototypes, and make adjustments. Adm. Grady said he hopes this challenge encourages students to think outside the box and prepares future generations to play a core role in our nation’s security.

“Skills associated with STEM are life skills - creativity, curiosity, trial and error, and decision making,” Adm. Grady said. “It’s about solving wicked hard problems, and the students at Walt Whitman Middle School did that with enthusiasm and determination.”

Eighth grader Mahrukh Kiyani said building the tower was a bit of a challenge, but persistence was key in constructing a successful structure. 

“I did build a prototype, but unfortunately that didn’t work out so I had to make a new one,” Mahrukh said. “It was a bit too thin and unstable, but my final product turned out pretty great.”

Students sketched their designs before building prototypes.
Students sketched their designs before building prototypes. 

Third place winners Everett Paone and Nathan Kelley said they also had to scrap their original idea and start from scratch. They landed on a design with papers rolled up into columns, supporting a platform 43 centimeters off the ground. The pair said they were happy with their final design and thrilled to have the opportunity to present their tower to Pentagon officials. 

“I hope that the students cherish this experience, knowing that the Pentagon visited our class and is invested in their future,” said engineering teacher Mr. Shabazz. “The students really put the effort and time into this project. Every team’s design lasted the entire minute, so everyone is leaving today with their head held high.”

Engineering teacher Mr. Shabazz looks on as one tower is scored.

FCPS Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid and Mount Vernon District Representative for the Fairfax County School Board Karen Corbett Sanders welcomed the special guests to Whitman MS and observed the STEM challenge. 


Challenge Winners