Army engineers promote STEM education, careers during Engineers Week in Alaska
Nathan Epps, acting deputy chief for the Engineering, Construction and Operations Division, stresses the importance of triangles while testing the load capacity of a student’s bridge design with a toy car on Feb. 22 at Clark Middle School in Anchorage. A team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District spoke with an applied technology class at the school during National Engineers Week to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. (U.S. Army photo by Rachel Napolitan) (Photo Credit: Rachel Napolitan) VIEW ORIGINAL

Armed with toothpicks and marshmallows, members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District conducted outreach events at four Anchorage schools to mark National Engineers Week from Feb. 20 to 26. The annual observance is dedicated to ensuring a diverse and well-educated future engineering workforce by increasing understanding of and interest in science, technology, engineering and math careers.

“I appreciate employees taking time out of their busy schedules to make an impact on young people’s lives, said Lt. Col. Virginia Brickner, deputy district commander. “Engineers Week, along with other outreach efforts throughout the year, is so important because we are broadening young minds and helping to shape our future STEM professionals.”

STEM fields are increasingly important to the nation’s future economic, scientific and national security posture. According to various reports, however, the U.S. faces a potential shortage of college graduates with STEM degrees. As one the world’s largest public engineering agencies with responsibility for delivering solutions to the nation’s toughest challenges, USACE recognizes the need for STEM-qualified professionals and is committed to expanding the talent pool.

In Alaska, E-Week provided an excellent opportunity to engage with local youth and spark an interest in these technical disciplines through hands-on experience.

Engineers, scientists and project managers from across the district spoke to more than 100 students about career paths within USACE along with teaching them the fundamentals of bridge design. They also helped the students construct bridges with toothpicks and marshmallows, testing the strength of the structures under the weight of toy cars.

Army engineers promote STEM education, careers during Engineers Week in Alaska
Lisa Geist, chief of the Environmental Engineering Branch at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District, explains the concepts of tension and compression using a pool noodle during a National Engineers Week event on Feb. 23 at Pacific Northern Academy in Anchorage. The district representatives provided students with a hands-on learning experience that involved constructing a bridge from toothpicks and marshmallows to inspire the next generation of engineers. (U.S. Army photo by Rachel Napolitan) (Photo Credit: Rachel Napolitan) VIEW ORIGINAL

“What a rewarding experience to see the kids excited about the bridge-building activity and all their incredible creativity in designing different bridges!” said Lisa Geist, chief of the Environmental Engineering Branch. “Sticky fingers and the competitive challenge for the most cars on the bridges was a ton of fun!”

Over the course of the week, students in seven classes used nearly 7,000 mini marshmallows and more than 5,000 toothpicks to construct their bridge projects. The structure that held the most weight was built by a student at Pacific Northern Academy, whose bridge held the load of five toy cars with no signs of buckling.

Army engineers promote STEM education, careers during Engineers Week in Alaska
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Students at Dimond High School completed bridges during outreach efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District on Feb. 24 in Anchorage. Part of National Engineers Week events by the district, students learned about structural elements of bridges and future career opportunities in STEM. (U.S. Army photo by Rachel Napolitan) (Photo Credit: Rachel Napolitan) VIEW ORIGINAL
Army engineers promote STEM education, careers during Engineers Week in Alaska
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A student tests the load-bearing strength of his bridge by adding a second toy car during a National Engineers Week event with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District on Feb. 25 at Lake Hood Elementary School in Anchorage. District representatives used marshmallows and toothpicks to demonstrate the importance of triangles in structural design during hands-on learning sessions with students ranging from fourth to ninth grade. (U.S. Army photo by Rachel Napolitan) (Photo Credit: Rachel Napolitan) VIEW ORIGINAL

Outreach efforts began at Clark Middle School on Feb. 23, where USACE representatives spoke to an applied technology class. The team included Nathan Epps, acting deputy chief for Engineering, Construction and Operations Division; Maj. Kathryn Hermon, project manager; and Matthew Schiavi, civil engineering technician.

“It was so much fun to share what I do with students and show them career fields that they may never have considered,” Hermon said.

Epps showed the students how to video record their bridge tests in slow motion to determine areas that needed to be strengthened. Using the footage, the kids adjusted their structures, allowing the engineers to explain how design is an iterative process.

Army engineers promote STEM education, careers during Engineers Week in Alaska
A student reacts with relief as his bridge constructed with toothpicks and marshmallows successfully holds the weight of a toy car during a learning session with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District on Feb. 23 at Pacific Northern Academy in Anchorage. USACE representatives visited four schools and interacted with more than 100 students during National Engineers Week to encourage young people to consider a future education and career in STEM. (U.S. Army photo by Rachel Napolitan) (Photo Credit: Rachel Napolitan) VIEW ORIGINAL

Seven members of the district then spent Feb. 24 at Pacific Northern Academy and Dimond High School, interacting with classes of fourth, seventh, eighth and ninth-graders.

While at Dimond, several students in junior ROTC were excited to learn that Hermon, a native of Palmer, also participated in the program which led her to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and become an engineer officer in the Army.

“I think it’s important for students to see someone like themselves as they begin to think about their futures,” Hermon said about the importance of participating in events like these and serving as a role model for young people who are considering their future educational choices and career plans.

John Rajek, civil engineer, worked with a student that was struggling with some changes in his personal life that day, encouraging him to try different methods to build a successful bridge.

“Since the first day of school, this kid has told me that he wanted to be a pilot when he grew up,” said Alina Delarosa, fourth-grade teacher at Pacific Northern Academy. “After [the bridge-building session], he told me ‘Mrs. D, I'm going to be an engineer when I grow up because [John] told me that I have an engineering mind!’”

Army engineers promote STEM education, careers during Engineers Week in Alaska
A student stacks toy cars on his bridge to test its strength during a hands-on learning experience with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District on Feb. 23 at Pacific Northern Academy in Anchorage. From the dozens of bridges constructed by students at four schools during National Engineers Week, this design held the most weight. (U.S. Army photo by Lisa Geist) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

By conducting outreach, the district aims to inspire the next generation of science, technology, engineering and math professionals while raising awareness about the USACE mission. Ultimately, the engagements are intended to empower youth to pursue their dreams and maximize their potential.

“I also had one of my girls tell me [the next] morning, ‘Mrs. D, I didn't realize there were women engineers. I think I may want to try that!’” Delarosa said.

The district staff ended the week at Lake Hood Elementary School on Feb. 25, where they spoke with 20 six-grade students.

Virginia Groeschel, civil engineer, stressed the importance of schedule, scope and budget when answering a student’s question about resource availability during construction of the bridges.

“When we build a project, we think about SSB – schedule, scope and budget,” she said. “We do not have unlimited resources or time, and we must make sure we achieve the objective that the customer gives us.”

However, for the bridge-building activity, students received unlimited toothpicks and marshmallows to complete their structures.

Groeschel also emphasized to students that math and science do not have to be their best subjects to pursue engineering.

“As you saw today with all the bridges you built, being creative is just as important to engineering,” she said. “If you like art and being creative, engineering is a great career field for you.”