WINCHESTER, Va. – Brig. Gen. Robert Carlson, Transatlantic Division commander, and Elizabeth Prusch, P.E., Middle East District structural engineer, shared engineering magic with a fourth grade class from the Virginia Avenue Charlotte DeHart Elementary School, Feb. 10 at the STARBASE Academy in Winchester.
STARBASE is a Department of Defense program, focused on elementary students, designed to motivate them to explore Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) as they continue their education. The academies serve students that are historically under-represented in STEM -- students who live in inner cities or rural locations, and are socio-economically disadvantaged, low in academic performance or have a disability are in the target group. These apply to all Frederick County, Virginia schools.
The academy in Winchester, housed at the Virginia National Guard Cherry-Beasley Readiness Center, hosts a different group of 28 students each week. The groups attend for a full school week, during which students are encouraged to set goals and achieve them. Guest speakers from STEM professions are scheduled for each session.
During initial introductions, the General discussed engineering in basic terms and asked thought-provoking questions. The students were eager to answer and share what they already knew.
The students’ questions for the General ranged from “Have you ever jumped out of an airplane?” to “Do you know the Army [phonetic] alphabet?” with several others in between. The students were engaged and anxious to hear what the General said.
The next phase was the slide show. Prusch presented a series of slides designed to explain engineering and its many disciplines. She talked about famous engineers and even more famous engineering feats. She quizzed the students about the tallest building in the world (the Burj Kalifah in Dubai, UAE, at a height of 2,722 feet), the tallest building in the United States (One World Trade Center in New York City, at a height of 1,776 feet), and the highest bridge in the United States (Royal Gorge, Colorado, at 1,053 feet).
The General evoked laughter from the students by commenting that you could parachute off of the building in the UAE and again by adding that you
could bungee jump from the Royal Gorge Bridge.
The students were anxious to move on to the hands-on portion of their morning.
The assignment: Build a weight-bearing bridge.
The five teams of three or four students were given graph paper, 100 popsicle sticks and two low-heat glue guns. They needed to work as a team, as is typically the case with engineers, agree on their plan and start the construction. There was a one hour time limit.
Sticks were stacked and glue flew everywhere.
Sixty minutes later, one group abruptly discovered they’d run out of materials with only two-thirds of their design executed. Another team had two sides, a bottom and top but they weren’t assembled.
But time was up and the next step was individual weight tests.
The bridges were set up on reams of paper with a 12-inch divide. The General added weights to the top of the bridges. He kept the students engaged by polling about what the students thought would happen with each added weight. He also called for a drum roll before each weight was added. Student (and teacher) enthusiasm was high.
The first two bridges collapsed with only 2.5 pounds of weight on them; one easily held 2.5 pounds but broke apart when more weight was added; another bridge held 5 pounds, and the class winner successfully held 7.5 pounds.
When it was time to test the bridge built by Prusch, the laughter and drum rolls got louder and louder. Her bridge never failed, even though Carlson had added 60 pounds of weight to the top.
“Why do you think Miss Elizabeth’s bridge is so strong?” asked the General. “What makes her bridge different from yours?”
“Magic?” replied one student, to which several students agreed must be the answer.
“It looks like magic,” Carlson answered, “but it’s really just great engineering. Miss Elizabeth is very good at her job.”
“This is what I do,” Prusch said. “As an engineer, I get to build things all the time.”
The student’s teacher, Scott Bucey, said this was the second time he’s brought a class to STARBASE. “Two years ago, I was here but then last year, we weren’t selected to come. I was really bummed for those kids.
“This STARBASE experience is great,” Bucey said. “It goes way beyond what we can offer at the school where they have a science class for only 30-minutes at a time. Here, the students get to do all these neat experiments and play with all this high-tech equipment. They really enjoyed programming the robots. All this hands-on inspires them. The kids love it and it’s a great experience for them.”
As the event drew to a close, the General asked how many of the students thought they may want to be engineers when they grow up. This brought a sea of hands popped into the air, students yelling “me!” and “yes!” and ignited an excited discussion among the students.
Engineering just may be magic after all.