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Promoting Structural Engineering in High Schools

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I have a few simple thoughts to add.

About ten years ago the company I worked for at the
time had a relationship with an elementary school.
Once a year, I gave a presentation to 5th and 6th
graders.  I presented to four classes, an hour each,
in one morning.  Counting travel, in 5 hours I made
maybe 120 students aware of and interested in what I
do.  We tested 4' wood furring strips in bending to
failure by standing kids on them (they loved that) and
learned about strong-axis and weak-axis strength.  We
crushed drinking-straw columns, full length and half
length, and learned about column buckling.  Then we
watched the Tacoma Narrows video.  This was a huge
success four at least four years.

A while later I took part in an ill-conceived CEC
project to a middle school.  The demonstrations were
similar, but involved 4 or 5 engineers talking and 30
kids just listening.  They all glazed immediately.
Moreover, we only had arranged to talk to one class.
Counting travel, we had two hours apiece times 5
people to bore 30 kids.  Big difference.

What I learned seems obvious: Use hands-on
demonstrations.  Let the kids break stuff, and learn
from it, then segue from that to slightly more
theoretical stuff (like, extend the concept of why a
stong-axis 1x2 is stronger, and then extend that to
why we build trusses).  Go in with just one or two
people, and line up a bunch of classes in a row.
Coordinate carefully and personally with both the
principal and, more importantly, the individual
teachers (one forgot us and left us sitting in the
office in the presence of 5 rude and useless
secretaries for 20 minutes, even after we sent a
student to tell her we were there).

And above all, show the Tacoma Narrows video.

Mike Hemstad
St. Paul, Minnesota

P.S.  I tend to agree with previous posters.  After
9th or 10th grade, if they haven't gotten on the
math-and-science track, it might be too late to
interest them in being engineers.

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