Montana State University

Engineerathon introduces local sixth graders to the fun of engineering

February 20, 2009 -- By Michael Becker, MSU News Service


Chief Joseph 6th-grader Austyn Grenz stares into a thermal imaging camera as Montana State University electrical engineering graduate students Nathan Greenfield, left, and Andrew Dahlberg explain the technology. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN -- A dozen middle school students gathered around a cardboard box on the floor of Montana State University's Strand Union ballrooms, watching as a lab-coated engineering student approached with a rock-hard frozen orange and a hammer.

It doesn't take an engineer to figure out what happened next.

Before the shattered pieces of the orange had even settled in the bottom of the box, the excited middle schoolers were back at the demonstration table, where a quartet of MSU chemical engineering students continued their talk about what liquid nitrogen can do and why it does it.

The demonstration was part of the Engineerathon, a daylong event held every year as part of National Engineers Week at MSU. On Thursday, more than 150 sixth graders from Chief Joseph Middle School visited campus, where they took part in nine educational activities run by MSU engineering students.

The activities ranged from building load-bearing bridges out of balsawood and gumdrops to programming path-following robots to using liquid nitrogen for making ice cream -- a crowd favorite activity.

The Engineerathon is one of several activities at MSU during Engineers Week. Other activities included the university's annual Women in Engineering dinner and Girl Scouts Badge Day, where engineering students work with local scouts on engineering projects.

Also part of the week was the Shadow an Engineer program, which invites Montana high school students to follow an MSU engineering student around for a day to learn about the programs the university offers.

Heidi Sherick, assistant dean of the College of Engineering, said the week's activities are designed to show visiting students that engineering is about working with science to solve problems and that it's something anyone can do.

"Our purpose is truly just to excite them and promote the possibilities of engineering," said Sherick, who oversees the college's outreach efforts. "So many kids know there are different sciences, but they don't take it to the next level to know that engineering is the application of those scientific concepts that they study."

Activities like the Engineerathon are run by engineering student volunteers because no one is better suited to show off MSU's engineering programs, Sherick said.  

"For them to be able to showcase their passion and excitement about an egg drop or liquid nitrogen, I think that makes for a strong connection with the visiting students."

Heidi Tynes, a senior in computer science and member of MSU's Women in Engineering group, agreed. Her group helped organize the Engineerathon, and while she said it's important to get all young people thinking about engineering, it's especially important to show young girls that it's an option because so few of them choose engineering as a career path.

"We like to help because we can get more little girls involved in engineering, and they can see that it's fun and easy," she said. "They can get hooked on it early."

It's doubtful that many of the boys and girls attending the Engineerathon were consciously thinking about career paths, not when they had a ballroom full of robots and infrared cameras and LEGO bricks in front of them.

But Rick Hannula, a science teacher at Chief Joseph Middle School, said just being exposed to engineering at any level was important for the students.

"They get a lot out of this," Hannula said. His students in years past have returned from Engineerathons fired up and ready to learn. "The enthusiasm and the excitement of it is contagious."

Hannula wished schools had more time for engineering lessons because the skills taught by engineering, such as problem solving and applied math, are so important to students' success. He hopes to incorporate some of the activities from the Engineerathon into his classroom next year.

While walking between a demonstration of thermal imaging equipment to one about path-following mini-robots, 11-year-old Austyn Grenz said he was having a great time learning about engineering.

"I like how people can make all these different inventions," Austyn said, noting that he was a big fan of the physical and electrical sciences.

Cordell Appel, 12, who was launching marshmallows off a small balsawood catapult, said he was excited to visit MSU for the Engineerathon.

"I thought it'd be interesting to learn about the different kinds of science and engineering," he said as a classmate handed him a piece of candy -- the team's reward for hitting a target with their marshmallow projectile.

He enjoyed getting a look at the different robots and learning about how engineers at MSU can program them to use sonar to sense their surroundings. Cordell said he might even be interested in studying science or engineering someday.

"I think that'd be cool," he said.

Contact: Michael Becker at 406-994-5140 or becker@montana.edu