News: Engineering Challenge lets professional engineers share real-world experience
Story by Sara Goodeyon
TULSA, Okla. — Engineers involved with the Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) outreach program volunteered their time and expertise at the 25th Tulsa Engineering Challenge, March 8 at the Tulsa Technology Center.
Registration showed that 1,303 students forming 1,110 teams from 37 schools participated in the competition. Students received hands-on experience with engineering and met various engineers in the Tulsa area. The idea was to get the students interested in engineering through a fun event and let them interact with engineers and see that they are creative people whose work makes a difference in the world.
“If we can make a positive impact and show the students that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are more than equations and homework, they are much more likely to stay in a college-bound track in those fields,” said Christopher Strunk, a Tulsa District civil engineer who has volunteered at the event for several years.
Strunk and Braden West, Daniel Morales and Lt. Michael Peaslee, who are Tulsa District engineers, ran the Ping-Pong Ball Launcher competition, one of ten competitive categories. Student teams were required to design, build, and test a ping-pong ball launcher powered by a common household mousetrap that would propel as many ping-pong balls as possible into a target within a set time limit. There were 185 teams registered for the launcher competition, up from 119 in 2012.
“This is a good exercise for the kids because the directions are pretty simple, only one or two pages,” said Strunk. “The objective is very straightforward for this competition. The kids can practice launching the ping-pong balls, either by building the wooden targets for the upper divisions, or by getting coffee cans for the younger divisions. It lets them experiment. They take the mousetrap and build the first one and it might not work, so they modify it and then try it again, and through that creative process it helps them learn basic physics, mathematics, and some constructability.”
Strunk began running the Ping-Pong Launcher six years ago with just a couple of volunteers and one target. The size of the event has grown to three targets and nine volunteers. Strunk said that type of growth is due to the support that the USACE and Tulsa District have provided to STEM activities over the past couple of years.
“Without the support of the district management encouraging engineers to be involved in the STEM program, we would not have the ability to reach out to as many students for this particular event,’ said Strunk. “Every volunteer who has had the opportunity to help with the Ping-Pong Launcher competition for the Tulsa Engineering Challenge has asked to be a part of it the following year.”
The competition gave the engineers the opportunity to provide instruction and advice to students. Strunk helped Jillian Newfield and Emily Cook solve a problem with their launcher before they competed. Strunk pointed out that the launcher was missing some parts and recommended combining other parts to get the launcher working.
“It was really cool that he helped us,” said Newfield. “Without him we wouldn’t have been able to compete.”
“I think it’s really good having someone who could help us because he knows what he’s doing so he could help us correct mistakes and tell us whatever needs to be changed,” said Cook. “I learned a lot from him, especially about physics. I want to continue learning about engineering and technology because it’s fun and I love math.”
That type of interaction between working engineers and young people is important because many of the students don’t really know what engineers do. The engineers bring real-world knowledge to the students as they help them solve problems with their projects.
“The ability to help teach and show these young students about engineering is very rewarding,” said Strunk. “It is easy to forget about the sheer fun and enjoyment that can be had by solving a problem. Solving problems is the very basis of engineering. The students help us professional engineers rekindle that spirit.”
The other competitions at the Engineering challenge were the Chemical Switch, Electric Motor, Extreme Engineering Challenge, Paper Airplane – Distance, Paper Airplane – Duration, Robot, Rubber Band Powered Vehicle, Toothpick Bridge, and Wacky Wonder Works. The top three finishers in each category received a cash prize.