“I appreciate employees taking time out of their busy schedules to make an impact on young people’s lives," said Lt. Col. Virginia Brickner, Deputy District Commander. “Engineers Week, along with other outreach efforts throughout the year, is so important because we are broadening young minds and helping to shape our future STEM professionals.”
STEM fields are increasingly important to the nation’s future economic, scientific, and national security posture. According to various reports, however, the U.S. faces a potential shortage of college graduates with STEM degrees. As one the world’s largest public engineering agencies, USACE recognizes the need for STEM-qualified professionals and is committed to expanding the talent pool.
In Alaska, E-Week provided an opportunity to engage with local youth and spark an interest in these technical disciplines through hands-on experience.
Engineers, scientists, and project managers from across the district spoke to more than 100 students about career paths within USACE along with teaching them the fundamentals of bridge design. They also helped the students construct bridges with toothpicks and marshmallows, testing the strength of the structures under the weight of toy cars.
“What a rewarding experience to see the kids excited about the bridge-building activity and all their incredible creativity in designing different bridges,” said Lisa Geist, Chief of the Environmental Engineering Branch. “Sticky fingers and the competitive challenge for the most cars on the bridges was a ton of fun.”
Over the course of the week, students in seven classes used nearly 7,000 mini marshmallows and more than 5,000 toothpicks to construct their bridge projects. The structure that held the most weight was built by a student at Pacific Northern Academy, whose bridge held the load of five toy cars with no signs of buckling.
Outreach efforts began at Clark Middle School, where USACE representatives spoke to an applied technology class. The team included Nathan Epps, Acting Deputy Chief for Engineering, Construction, and Operations Division; Maj. Kathryn Hermon, Project Manager; and Matthew Schiavi, Civil Engineering Technician.
“It was so much fun to share what I do with students and show them career fields that they may never have considered,” Hermon said.
Epps showed the students how to video record their bridge tests in slow motion to determine areas that needed to be strengthened. Using the footage, the kids adjusted their structures, allowing the engineers to explain how design is an iterative process.
Seven members of the district then spent the next day at Pacific Northern Academy and Dimond High School, interacting with classes of fourth, seventh, eighth, and ninth-graders.
While at Dimond, several students in junior ROTC were excited to learn that Hermon, a native of Palmer, also participated in the program which led her to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and become an Engineer Officer in the Army.
“I think it’s important for students to see someone like themselves as they begin to think about their futures,” Hermon said about the importance of participating in events like these and serving as a role model for young people who are considering their future educational choices and career plans.
John Rajek, Civil Engineer, worked with a student that was struggling with some changes in his personal life that day, encouraging him to try different methods to build a successful bridge.
“Since the first day of school, this kid has told me that he wanted to be a pilot when he grew up,” said Alina Delarosa, Fourth-Grade Teacher at Pacific Northern Academy. “After [the bridge-building session], he told me ‘Mrs. D, I'm going to be an engineer when I grow up because [John] told me that I have an engineering mind.’”
By conducting outreach, the district aims to inspire the next generation of STEM professionals while raising awareness about the USACE mission. Ultimately, the engagements are intended to empower youth to pursue their dreams and maximize their potential.
“I also had one of my girls tell me [the next] morning, ‘Mrs. D, I didn't realize there were woman engineers. I think I may want to try that,’” Delarosa said.
The district staff ended the week at Lake Hood Elementary School, where they spoke with 20 sixth grade students.
Virginia Groeschel, Civil Engineer, stressed the importance of schedule, scope, and budget when answering a student’s question about resource availability during construction of the bridges.
“When we build a project, we think about SSB — schedule, scope, and budget,” she said. “We do not have unlimited resources or time, and we must make sure we achieve the objective that the customer gives us.”
However, for the bridge-building activity, students received unlimited toothpicks and marshmallows to complete their structures. Groeschel also emphasized to students that math and science do not have to be their best subjects to pursue engineering.
“As you saw today with all the bridges you built, being creative is just as important to engineering,” she said. “If you like art and being creative, engineering is a great career field for you.”