For engineers a typical day includes designing state-of-the-art buildings. When middle school students have the chance to do the same, it makes for one exciting day in science class.
In February, five structural engineers with the Louisville District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) visited Scott Middle School, Fort Knox, Kentucky, to give more than 100 eighth grade students a glimpse into the engineering profession.
This visit to Scott Middle School is part of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Outreach (STEM ED) partnership between the Department of Defense Education Activities (DoDEA) schools and USACE designed to inspire students to pursue careers in STEM fields.
“What’s interesting is how they can apply their knowledge from their science and math courses and then how we can apply it to our work,” said Mercedes Hughes, USACE structural engineer. “It helps them make a connection and gives them a better understanding of what an engineer does.”
Hughes, a structural engineer who has coordinated the program with the eighth graders, has visited the students three times in the last month to share the basics of engineering and seismic design. The engineers worked hard to incorporate items into each visit that would challenge the students in every area of the STEM curriculum. On a previous visit, students were asked to build structures designed to withstand seismic forces and estimated the costs associated with building those structures.
“We’re trying to explain it to them and deliver it on their level all while making it fun,” said Hughes.
This third and final visit got the students excited with a virtual reality headset—or 3D goggles—which allowed them to maneuver through a newly designed 21st century DoDEA school building similar to the ones they were designing.
Students first worked in small breakout groups using Building Information Modeling (BIM) software to create their own structures with columns, trusses and walls before seeing how a finished product would look through the goggles.
“We’ll show you all what we do and we’ll let you all model it yourself on the laptop and then we will take it one step further with letting each of you do a virtual walk through,” said Jeremy Nichols, structural engineer.
RS&H, the architect engineering firm working on the Kingsolver-Pierce Elementary School project at Fort Knox, partnered with USACE to illustrate the concepts of design with the use of their 3-D goggles.
“We’re trying to bring realism of the profession to the students,” said Marilyn Lewis, engineering division chief. “We’re using tools that look much like their video games that they play at home.”
With an Xbox controller in hand and the headset strapped on, students could take a virtual tour of a school and navigate through common areas and classrooms filled with modern furniture. This demonstration allowed the students to see how the space would really feel by walking through the model versus just looking at typical blueprints.
“You can kind of see what you did before it is actually constructed,” Alex McCoy, structural engineer, told the students when explaining the goggles to his group.
The students commented on how real it seemed and asked many questions about modeling and the engineering profession.
“Anytime experts come in from the community and share knowledge with the kids it brings science and math to life. It’s super,” said eighth grade science teacher, Ralph Serpico.
In addition to the demonstrations on seismic forces with the eighth graders, USACE engineers are working with sixth and seventh graders at Scott Middle School as well as using the Corps’ current construction site of the Kingsolver-Pierce Elementary school as an on-site laboratory for their topics.
“We’re building a DoDEA school at Fort Knox, so our thought was let’s use that actual project and illustrate concepts that the students are actually studying,” said Lewis. “We’re looking at the real things in the school rather than making up experiments.”
Later in the spring the sixth graders will be studying energy and doing a mock design for the geothermal well field for the Kingsolver-Pierce school. The seventh graders, who have already completed their projects, discussed sinkholes, the science behind them and real-world examples of the damage they cause. A sinkhole found on the property of the Kingsolver-Pierce school project made for a perfect topic as a way to tie in real-life examples to the engineering career field. Students also learned about earthquakes, famous structures around the globe and transportation infrastructure in various countries.