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Posted 6/8/2012

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By Greg Fuderer
Los Angeles District

CORONA, Calif. — The number and types of engineers America's education system is preparing for the nation's future is often an active and energetic discussion among the Department of Defense, educators and the scientific community. It was also an active discussion June 4 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District hosted nearly 30 students from Los Angeles Roosevelt High School for a day at Prado Dam, giving them a close-up look at the dam and how it operates, and at part of the process involved in implementing a project.

"This was the best way to help make the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math connection for students," said Jennie Ayala, the STEM program manager for the District. "We have a responsibility to promote and encourage STEM awareness. We are, after all the world's premier public engineering organization, and what better way to bring it home than to bring the classroom experience to life on one of our project sites."

The students learned about the history of Prado Dam, why it's located where it is and the consequences for residents, businesses and infrastructure downstream if the dam did not exist. Michael Siu, the supervisory civil engineer at Prado, welcomed the students with a short historical presentation. While some of what Siu said may have seemed dry to the students, one particular word had an immediate impact, "Disneyland."

Siu told the students that Prado Dam, in conjunction with Seven Oaks Dam and other water control structures within the Santa Ana River Mainstem project, releases flood waters in measured amounts, coordinated with downstream assets and the area's water resource agencies. Without it, much of Orange County, including the world-famous amusement park, would suffer severe damage.

Following the welcome, the students visited Prado's embankment and control tower, where they descended several flights of stairs to the tower's lowest level. There, dam tender Lawrence Watkins described the hydraulic lifts that raise and lower the outlet gates, controlling the rate of water released through the dam.

At the soils lab nearby, civil engineer Paul Beaver demonstrated how engineers test soil for its suitability in the construction of dams, levees, embankments and other flood damage reduction projects.

Throughout the day, Anabel Ronquillo, an engineer in soils and design section, and Ed Mitchell, an engineering intern rotating through District offices, assisted with the program, describing their educational experience and answering questions about their involvement in civil works projects.

The day concluded with a "there-are-no-wrong-answers" real-world interactive discussion led by biologists Hayley Lovan and Chris Jones. They walked the students through portions of the planning process the Corps goes through on every project.

"We used one of our current projects as an example and asked the kids to help us out with one of the issues we are facing on that project, which is basically the siting of staging areas," Jones said. "We walked them through potential factors that could influence the decision, including those associated with biological resources, water resources, real estate and recreation, to name a few. The kids weighed these options and offered up some quality responses as to why certain configurations of staging areas sounded reasonable. Some of the students really put on their thinking caps and offered up some additional areas that were not presented, but sounded like they met the criteria we had laid out. It was great to see them thinking outside of the box and engaging in the activity."

Jones was not the only person who saw a benefit from the students' visit.

"This was an amazing opportunity for students to experience science and engineering in a relevant and meaningful way," said Ricardo Chavarria, the school coordinator for Roosevelt High School. "They truly understood the importance of the work the Corps of Engineers is doing. I hope we can grow this partnership in the future."

"The STEM UP program seems like a great opportunity to expose kids to potential career paths that might not otherwise be so apparent," Jones said. "I know for myself, I had no idea I could get a job as a biologist until well into my college career."

STEM UP is an initiative executed by Great Minds in STEM, formerly known as HENAAC, which is funded through a contract from the Department of Defense and administered by the Army Corps of Engineers' Los Angeles District office. The intent is to drive innovation that will maintain the nation's economic base and status as a world technology leader by increasing and expanding the nation's pool of homegrown talent for government, industry and universities.