GARDINER — Pointing a hand-held light at small cars with solar panels, high school students made the vehicles zip across tables, while other students used fans and wind turbines to power their cars, tinkering with the simple electric circuits to try to improve their speeds.

Cameron Cormier and Chris Wheeler, two ninth graders at Gardiner Area High School, attached two solar panels to their car to allow them to move it forward and backward.

“This thing was ripping, huh?” Cormier said to Wheeler after Cormier used the light to move their car back and forth on a table in the high school’s library Monday afternoon.

The activities the roughly 30 students at the high school took part in Monday were part of an educational program developed by Northwestern University to spark students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields — STEM. Through a partnership with Siemens, the university’s program, called FUSE, has developed classes for kindergarten through 12th-grade students.

“No one’s going to learn more about something if it’s not actually fun or if it’s not something that’s interesting to them,” said Henry Mann, the initiative’s program coordinator.

Mann and other representatives from the university and the engineering company brought the program to Gardiner Area High School for the day because Siemens has been working with the school district for years, including recently winning a performance contract to make energy efficiency improvements, said Regional School Unit 11 Superintendent Patricia Hopkins. Members of the school board and local and state government officials visited the high school Monday to see part of the program in action.

Tom Desjardins, acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, said it’s important for students to experience real-world applications of their skills.

“Experiential learning is one of the best ways to learn, partly because it’s fun,” Desjardins said while watching Cormier and Wheeler work on their solar car.

Introducing STEM activities to a wide variety of students in a fun, hands-on way is a big part of the FUSE program, said Mann, who developed a lot of the program’s challenges. He said it’s more important to make the kids passionate about the fields than just to try to drill knowledge into them. Students likely wouldn’t be able to explain the details of how engines and capacitors work after the activity, but they would understand the big picture, Mann said.

After completing the program’s basic challenge, Cormier decided to see what else he could do with the solar car kit and added another solar panel on his car to move it in both directions. He said being able to come up with new ideas and taking the challenge to another level is what he enjoyed about the program.

“It’s fun. It definitely brings out a new perspective of how you can use different tools,” Cormier said.

Organizers of the program and teachers stopped at different tables to prompt the students to expand on what they were doing and posed new challenges for them.

After being asked how he could move the car through a tunnel if he couldn’t shine the light on the solar panel the whole time, Cormier found a switch in the kit to allow him to charge the capacitor with the light.

“Let’s see if we can get this bad boy moving,” Cormer said to Wheeler as he connected the switch to the circuit.

Although the program was only a one-time activity, Hopkins said the school district gets to keep the solar- and wind-powered car kits for teachers to use in the future. She said she also hopes to work with Siemens to do more educational collaborations with the students.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

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Twitter: @paul_koenig