Often the phrase “a good time was had by all” is said sarcastically or tongue in cheek but those words are perfectly accurate when describing recent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Middle East District’s (TAM) guest speaking opportunities at Winchester’s STARBASE Academy.
STARBASE Academy is a Department of Defense program held at 70 locations across the United States, including Winchester, -- the only one in Virginia. The program strives to excite elementary school students about exploring Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) as they continue their education.
TAM has had a long standing partnership with STARBASE Winchester and provided some of the first in-person speakers to be invited back since the start of the COIVD pandemic.
In two separate visits in May, TAM’s Katie Render, Fire Protection Engineer, shared her experiences as a civilian engineer, while Deputy Commander Maj. Eder Ramirez shared his military combat engineer side. Both perspectives were engaging to the students.
Render discussed what it takes to be an engineer and the many various disciplines available within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She shared information about engineering and fun facts with students, teachers and STARBASE leaders. Her enthusiasm for the subject was contagious as the class peppered her with questions about her career and engineering.
"When I started college, I thought I wanted to be a chemical engineer,” she said. “I even worked in Cancer research for a while, but I switched to cost engineering. Finally, I found my real passion as a fire protection engineer.
“It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what you want to do right away,” Render said. “Learn what you can and if that isn’t what you really want to do every day, keep on learning, study hard and don’t stop looking for whatever makes you happy.”
Ramirez’s path to engineering was not a straight line either. “I had a full scholarship and wanted to be a doctor. After 9-11 happened, I joined the Army as a combat medic because I thought that would give me some valuable experience.”
After four years of service, he returned to school, switched majors and was commissioned a 2d Lt. in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho.
While fire protection engineers and combat engineers, military and civilian, have very different day-to-day tasks, both share the desire to solve problems. Render shared her experiences as a civilian engineer, while Deputy Commander Maj. Eder Ramirez shared his military combat engineer side. Both perspectives were engaging to the students.
She went on to discuss the history of engineering and specific marvels/extraordinary feats, and shared some of the Middle East District’s many unique projects.
Ramirez grabbed the students’ attention by starting with a demolitions training video, followed by a floating bridge transporting a tank across a river in Korea, and tarantula-like vehicles that cut through and moved dirt to create a road where none existed so these huge tanks could get through. Students were quite attentive.
STARBASE offers schools from surrounding counties the opportunity to send classes of up to 28 students for a 5-day period to the Academy where they are encouraged to set and achieve personal goals. The program engages students through inquiry-based curriculum with its hands-on, mind-on experiential activities. Newton's Laws, Bernoulli's principle, nanotechnology, navigation and mapping are explored. They are captivated by engineering as they use the computer to design space stations, all-terrain vehicles, and submersibles. Math is embedded throughout the curriculum and students use metric measurement, estimation, calculation geometry and data analysis to solve questions. Teamwork is stressed as they work together to explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate concepts.
“This is the first time we’ve had students back in the building since March 2020,” explained the STARBASE instructor Debra Putman whose call sign is Comet in the classroom. “We were on mandatory telework initially, and even when the kids did go back to school, STARBASE was considered a field trip, which of course was not allowed.”
The recent classes only had 10 and 12 students, instead of the much larger pre-COVID classes, but they were all full of energy, good ideas, listened intently and worked extremely well in their 2-person teams.
Both speakers moved from their discussions into a bridge building project. Each team of two had 100 craft sticks and hot glue. They collaborated to design and then build some kind of bridge to span 12 inches. Following the construction phase, the bridges estimated the load they thought their bridges would hold and then tested them, each was tested until it failed. The top team’s bridge, for both classes, held 84 pounds before it collapsed.
“Look at your bridges now to figure out what it was on your bridge that made it fail and correct that for the next time you build a bridge,” he said.
The follow-on discussions brought several suggestions to make their designs better. Some said they would use more of their available supplies to make it stronger and others noted how triangles added to the strength of winning team’s bridge.
“That’s what engineers do,” said Ramirez.
“I had such a good time at STARBASE,” said Render, who has already volunteered for more outreach opportunities and has several ideas for sharing STEM and USACE careers and accomplishments of USACE.