By Jim Montague, Executive Editor
Where do engineers come from? This is an increasingly crucial question because we're apparently running out. So, where can we get more? Some university, college and high school programs are partnering with businesses and trade organizations to encourage students to participate in engineering-related activities and contests, hoping to inspire them to become engineers. However, these programs mainly attract students who are already interested, and fail to draw in the larger group who may not think they can succeed in technical fields. Some research shows that sparking a true interest in engineering may need to occur much earlier—in elementary school.
To check on this idea, I jumped at the chance to tag along with my 10-year-old daughter's Junior Girl Scout Troop 938 when they journeyed Feb. 13 to a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) session, "Engineering Your World," put on by the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana (www.girlscoutsgcnwi.org).
Besides pads of paper and crayons, the girls were also given another essential engineering tool—a large roll of duct tape. Very realistic.
Suitably equipped, the girls were divided into small teams to take on several hands-on exercises using a basic brainstorming, design and development process. Troop 938's "Thin Mints" team included Natalie Ehrler, Stacey Herman, Gracie Montague and Lizzy Soglin.
For example, the team was asked to build a table using only a piece of cardboard, newspaper and tape. They quickly rolled and taped newspaper for legs, attached the cardboard for a top, and then watched it collapse.
"Well, it fell in the middle, so we decided to add another leg right in the middle, and it worked!" explained the team members, pretty much in unison. Anyway, the newly modified five-legged table was a sturdy success. In fact, in later competition, it was capable of supporting six heavy textbooks.
In the final two-part challenge each team member had to think about difficulties in her life, come up with a solution, sketch it out, pick a name, and even draft a marketing plan and jingle. The proposals included Automatic Pillowcase to make it easier to change pillowcases; Shoe Tier to automatically tie shoelaces; Magical Rabbit Cage, a self-cleaning pet enclosure; Non-Squealing Hamster Cage Wheels; and Automatic Color-Changing Shoelaces.
Shoe Tier won at the team level because its plan best explained how to put a shoe-clad foot into an enclosure where small robot arms with pincers would grab the shoelaces and tie them. In the large-group contest, Shoe Tier went up against the automatic-bowl-filling Dogfoodinator, Fishy Feeder and Toothbrushing Ice Cream—"Just keep eating! Safe to swallow!"
What I really learned was that all the future engineers are already out there—bubbling and exploding with ideas and enthusiasm.
Pretty much every school or park district, kids' organization or community has some access to STEM or similar programs. All could use a few real engineers to show up, hang out with the kids, show them what they know, and maybe build a few projects together. Assuming you guys aren't too old already?