Talking to elementary school students about engineering is always an adventure with no two encounters ever the same.
The Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Middle East District (TAM) participates in events that highlight and encourage interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). District professionals regularly and eagerly volunteer when the District is asked to participate in outreach efforts in the STEM arena. Generally, the District focuses on high school and university students through job shadowing, internships and recruiting efforts. There is one big exception: STARBASE.
The 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 STEM as they continue their education. TAM has had a long-standing partnership with STARBASE Winchester.
District employees are usually scheduled as guest speakers three times per semester, six times per year. The speakers typically spend two and a half hours with the fifth grade students, initially talking about Engineering in both general and personal terms, followed by the students designing, building and testing popsicle stick bridges.
“I love speaking at STARBASE because I love engineering and telling other people about it,” said Garrison Myer, Team TAM civil engineer and the latest District-provided STARBASE guest speaker. “So few kids have an idea of what engineers really do; to be able to interact with them on a personal level and to show them that engineering is cool, interesting and fun is just awesome.”
STARBASE classes are groups of 5th grade students from the local schools. Even though no two classes are ever exactly the same, there are almost always a few students already interested in engineering. But this week’s STARBASE Academy experience was one for the record books.
“It is fantastic to meet with a group of students where every one of them is interested in engineering and science,” said Myer “The only hard part about it was staying on topic with the slides and staying on time! The kids have so many great questions and I really wanted to answer all of them, but also make sure that we covered everything we needed to.
“It’s also nice because the excitement of the kids really brings back that child-like awe of engineering which can get lost in the everyday grind of work,” he said. “It makes you remember why you are an engineer and how exciting our work really is.”
The students’ interest in Engineering was obvious from their first reaction to Myer’s introduction. Questions immediately started flowing. During a brief historical discussion, students readily jumped in and Myer’s answers spawned even more questions and comments.
His number one rule in answering students’ questions is to never dampen their curiosity, even if the question is off-topic or a little off-track.
“The minute a child, who doesn’t know better, gets lectured by an adult that they came to the wrong conclusion is the minute that child shuts down and decides they never liked that topic anyway – and adults do this too,” Myer said. “Instead, if we foster that curiosity, we can spark real interest in our student. Show them why this matters to them, and if they have the wrong answer, or even the wrong question, gently guide them to the correct one. And if you can help them figure out the correct one on their own, that’s even better!”
When Myer explained the strength of a triangle compared to other shapes and stressed the suggestion to include them in their designs, one of the students asked him if he was in the Illuminati. He responded: “Even if I was, I couldn’t exactly answer that question.”
Other enthusiastic and inspired genuine questions asked by the students included (but were not limited to):
* Can you be more than one type of engineer?
* What is New Jersey like?
* Who invented the laser pen?
* Do circuit snapboards really help you to learn about electrical engineering?
* And follow-up questions to nearly every response Myer gave, including “how?” or “why?”
“Two of the students got into a rather serious, but good natured, debate on Nikola Tesla’s inventions and how Thomas Edison is credited for so many things, but really he was good at buying patents,” Myer added. “Both the boy for Edison and the girl for Tesla really knew their history and the engineering achievements of each individual. It was absolutely incredible just watching these two go back and forth!”
Myer had one little girl known by the call sign of “Dunk” approach him after the presentation and ask if she could give him a hug because that presentation was her favorite part of the whole week.
“It was the sweetest thing,” he said. “She told me she is a ‘bit nerdy’ and her family calls her “Computer” but she likes it! And that she really likes engineering and enjoyed the presentation. Seeing and fostering that type of devotion and pure joy about engineering and about the future gives me so much hope.
“There is so much potential in each of these kids, and it is our responsibility as adults to do all we can to lift them up on our shoulders and never drag them down. If we can do that, engineers like “Dunk” are going to change the world.”