Third Grade

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit an elementary school in Overland Park and speak to their third graders about engineering. It was such a fun experience, I thought I should write up a quick post.

Garmin promotes a lot of really great community outreach projects. One of the engineers in my department heads up a group called Engineering Ambassadors. The goal is to expose students (elementary school to high school) to our profession. I was a bit of a "late bloomer" in terms of my educational career, so I think it's pretty important for students to know what kinds of options are out there when they start making decisions about middle school and high school classes. Plus, the world needs more imaginative, passionate engineers than it needs marketing executives. If I can keep one kid out of business school, then I've done my job.

Our volunteer group has a lot of material prepared (PowerPoint slides, a few videos, and some hands-on activities). I decided I wanted the kids to experience a little engineering. I didn't want them to just build something from instructions. I wanted them to think out a solution, try the solution, and improve it. So, I was faced with a engineering problem: Provide a hands-on activity for about 50 third grade students that demonstrated the fundamental engineering process. I wanted something they could build out of materials that are as close to free as I can get. I wanted their output to be immediately testable by them, and I wanted their results to be somewhat consistent from one group of students to the next.

I decided to make an activity out of one of the most iconic forms of engineering: building bridges. To keep the costs down, I figured making a bridge out of a sheet of copier paper would work well. I made 15 small spans out of some scrap 1x3 cedar boards. The spans were 7.5" across (to allow an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper to reach both sides on its narrow axis) with 3" of clearance. I also provided five paperclips per group for some fastening (some students used the paperclips very creatively). To weigh down the bridges, I provided nearly 300 1/2" I.D. washers (the biggest cost of the project; about $40). I had estimated each group would need about 20 washers (about half a pound) for a rigorous test. I needed more washers.

The kids came up with some very cool ideas I wouldn't have thought of. I was thinking some complex origami might be the best route. Some students did too, and their bridges held up well. More than a few groups used some of their weights to build an active suspension bridge. They used the paperclips like cables at the ends of the piece of paper to connect a few of their washers to counter the load on the bridge... awesome. One group folded a paper airplane, and just set it on the span; it worked very well. Several groups made triangular or round columns to support the bridge at intervals. Two groups folded a triangular tunnel, held together on one edge by the paper clips. A couple groups discovered my clever dimensions and folded their paper so the short edges supported the whole bridge along its length like an up-side-down "U." One of those types of bridges held over a pound-and-a-half!

Some groups were trying to cheat the system or copy other groups' ideas (future MBAs), but they were in the minority. The kids were excited to be able to evaluate their designs, and improve them almost immediately. The activity only lasted about 30 minutes, and a few of the groups iterated their designs four or five times. It was fun to watch an early design utterly fail, and tell them it was a good thing to see it fail, and to try to figure out why it happened.

I also gave about an hour long presentation about engineering. I described the different engineering disciplines and how they worked together to solve a single problem. I enjoyed all the questions they had about different types of engineers.

There was one question I was surprised to hear from both groups: "What is the most important type of engineer?" I took the opportunity to discuss team dynamics and convey that no single type of engineer is overall more important. Sure, there are projects where a civil engineer is more critical to the design than a EE, but the idea that you could solve a problem that involves those disciplines without one of those types of engineers is probably why so many designs are bad these days. Short-changing a project with non-specialists (including engineers of the proper discipline, but lacking particular domain knowledge) is a bad way to run a project.

The teachers seemed to like the visit, too. One comment was that they often pay outside speakers to present things to their classes, and that the expensive traveling speakers aren't usually as engaging as my amateur delivery was. I'm glad they asked me to come back next year, and even suggested I give presentations to high school students who haven't picked a career path yet. I hope to continue my involvement in the program.

If some poor kid raised in a remote corner of the Midwest can figure out how to become an embedded avionics engineer, the children around here (Johnson County, KS) should do well to push our creatively stagnant industries into the 21st century. I hope my children live in a world where people compete to produce better solutions, instead of competing to just make more money without any lasting benefit to the rest of society.