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March 5, 2008
By Sue Putnam
On a recent cold winter day, 64 fourth-graders fidgeted in the auditorium of Robert Mitchell Elementary School in Sparks. But as soon as they were handed an engineering magazine called, “Go for it!” the fidgeting stopped and the page-turning began.
The publication is filled with the feats and inventions of engineers around the world. Roller coasters, robots, lasers, laptops, iPhones and Super Soakers are just a few examples of what engineers can do. It’s an introduction to engineering for most students, and it’s brought to them by the Mobile Engineering Education Lab from the College of Engineering.
“On average, we visit approximately 200 students a week,” Debbie Delauer, the K-12 outreach coordinator for the College said. “We’ve had great response from principals and teachers, and they often say they’re very excited to have more science in the schools, as it seems to have slipped in the priorities of the curriculum.”
The ME2L is not a new project. But two years ago, the sturdy white van made too few visits because of too few dollars. Fortunately, the Mallory Foundation understood this and provided major funding for a part-time director of K-12 outreach at the College.
The new director and the new funding helped kick-start a broader program. Along with the Mallory Foundation, Forbes & Dunagan, MSA Engineering, Gabbart & Woods and Meridian Gold pitched in to keep the mobile lab going so it can make the rounds of Washoe County elementary schools. Delauer and mechanical engineering student Callie Henderson believe they’ll visit several thousand students before the end of the year.
Henderson begins each session by asking the students what they think engineers do.
“They make things!” one student shouts, while another describes the profession as “solving problems.” Henderson patiently runs through a list of different types of engineers and shows some photos of engineering marvels like the Golden Gate Bridge, the space shuttle and the Dubai towers.
“Many of these students start out thinking engineers are just people who drive trains,” Henderson said. “So it’s fun to show them the huge variety of projects and ‘cool’ things that different kinds of engineers actually do.”
After the presentation, it’s time for the hands-on experience ME2L can provide. Delauer and Henderson go classroom to classroom, hauling supplies of lemons, pennies, nails, voltage meters and K’NEX construction kits. In Mrs. Gray’s fourth-grade class, Henderson explains electrons and conductors and the kids form small groups to see how their lemons can conduct electricity.
The scent of the lemons fills the small room as the students stick a nail, the negative pole, in one end of the fruit and a penny, the positive pole, in the other. The chemical reaction of the acid in the lemons causes the electrons to flow through the metals, and the kids use their voltage meters to gauge the amount of electricity produced by their endeavors.
“Your job right now is to gain knowledge,” Delauer tells the class. “College may seem far away, but it’s really not, so I want you to think about all the opportunities that are out there for engineers and really concentrate on your math and science lessons.”
A former elementary school teacher herself, Delauer believes bringing the lab to the students not only allows them the hands on experience, but also lets them see and talk with people in the engineering field.
“Engineers are in high demand and the diversity of the profession provides a lot of opportunities. Hopefully, the children we’re visiting with this program will be encouraged and curious, and then who knows? We just might have a significant increase in engineering students at the University who were inspired or influenced by these basic but fun experiments.”