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Outreach programs introduce engineering to younger students

Girl Scout junior Payton Wandrey tests her air-propelled car during the 2012 Girl Scout Day. The Mizzou chapter of the Society of Women Engineers hosts the annual event, which brings area junior and cadet Girl Scout troops to Mizzou.

Toothpicks and gumdrops may not be the materials most civil engineers use when building bridge supports, but for elementary school-aged students, they are perfect for teaching how design can affect a structure.

In an effort to introduce engineering’s potential to children long before they are ready for college entrance exams, several engineering departments and organizations in the University of Missouri College of Engineering have created opportunities for younger students to explore the possibilities.

MU engineering hosts several events throughout the year that expose elementary school-aged children to one or more engineering fields. The fact that the college’s student organizations and groups coordinate and stage the events adds to the fun.

“We want to inspire future engineers. We want to let them know that math and science are important,” said Tina Balser, assistant director of student enrichment.

Participents in last semester’s Civil Engineering Day for Kids test the strength of the toothpick and gumdrop structures the made. The Mizzou chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers hosts the event.

Bridge-building is just one of the lessons taught to third, fourth and fifth graders who participate Civil Engineering Day for Kids, a K-12 outreach program specifically targeting Columbia-area students in third, fourth and fifth grades. Hosted by the Mizzou chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the organization hosts up to 50 students for day-log events in the fall and spring semesters, teaching them about designing and building structures, environmental sustainment, transportation and other aspects of civil and environmental engineering.

Sara Goebel, MU ASCE outreach coordinator, said the lessons taught at the event were formulated to teach children in the eight- to 11-year-old age range.

“I thought back to when I was a kid when planning the activities. I remember making toothpick and gumdrop structures,” Goebel, a senior civil engineering major, said.

In addition to ASCE’s event, LEGO robotics camps are held each semester to engage students in first through ninth grades. The program, originally funded with a National Science Foundation grant, has remained a part of MU engineering’s outreach programs since 2006.

Scouting and engineering
Another way engineering reaches out to children is through local youth organizations such as area Boy Scout and Girl Scout councils.

The Mizzou Society of Women Engineers (SWE) hosts an annual Girl Scout Day, hosting area junior- and cadet-level troops. Scouts spend half a day at MU, learning about various engineering concepts, including algorithms, water conservation and more.

Area Girl Scouts react to the humor of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with exact instructions at the 2012 Girl Scout Day. The activity taught the principles of algorithims.

Kelly Tepper, SWE director of outreach, remembered having fun in high school with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich activity that demonstrated algorithms, and repeated it for the scouts.

Columbian Kelda Serak took her fifth grade Girl Scout Junior troop  to the event and spent the day working on engineering projects that also included water filtration, mechanical marshmallow launchers and air-propelled paper cars.

She said the troop had heard about the event through the local Girl Scout council, thanks to outreach efforts by Balser.

“The girls got together as a troop and decided what events they wanted to go to this year,” Serak said. “They’re very interested in chemistry and engineering, and this is one of two events we are going to this year.

“Especially for girls, it is important to expose them to the science and math fields because it’s typically thought of as a male-dominated field,” Serak said.

Tepper agreed. She said early exposure to engineering for young women helps them learn about career possibilities for later in life and teaches them about opportunities in engineering.

“If you’re exposed to engineering, the doors don’t close,” Tepper said.

The scouts use the event to earn junior badges or cadet patches.

“This would definitely be an activity that would go toward a badge,” Serak said.

Mizzou Engineering also offers Cub Scout Webelos a chance to earn their science and engineering pins.

At Webelos Day of Science and Engineering, sponsored by Hudson and Gillette halls’ engineering Freshman Interest Groups (FIGs), scouts earn the pins though hands-on activities that test different laws of science and teach how engineering principles function and are applied in society. The event is held in the fall.

Beyond campus
The newest venture that aims to bring engineering to kids is Mizzou Engineering’s community partnership with Benton Elementary School, a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) agenda school. The partnership, started this semester, brings MU students together with students from Benton.

“We’re in their backyard. Supporting local schools and organizations is key,” Balser said. “Benton is a STEM school, and our students are very interested in giving back.

MU students volunteer at the elementary school, working with the school’s Lego Club and providing the younger students with a better idea of how they can use math and science.

“We’re able to bring students to them who came from similar backgrounds,” Balser said. “We’re sending three or four students over there to volunteer with Lego Club once a week. This also introduces the opportunities to teachers and counselors.”