By John Budnik
"It's the future," said Steve Grabowski, an Anchorage School District teacher, about the importance of exposing science, technology, engineering and mathematics education to elementary students.
Members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- Alaska District visited three of Grabowski's fifth and sixth grade classes between Nov.18 and 22 at Mount Spurr, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor elementary schools on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
"The Corps believes that it can be a leader in helping to solve the Army's science, technology, engineering and math challenges to ensure we have a pipeline of talent in the future," said Col. Christopher Lestochi, commander of the Alaska District.
The events were led by hard-hat wearing district representatives Maj. Mark DeRocchi, deputy commander; Randy Bowker, acting chief of the Programs and Project Management Division; Mike Gaulke, civil engineer in the Design Branch, and Lisa Geist, environmental scientist in the Environmental Engineering Branch.
Students learned about the Corps, its missions and capabilities, and contributions to the community. The children were challenged to build their own bridges using marshmallows and toothpicks within 10 minutes. Their structures were tested by supporting toy cars that spanned across two planks of wood.
A suspenseful scene unfolded as the young engineers anxiously watched some bridges succeed and others fail, but a learning opportunity was shared nonetheless.
"It's really fun seeing them playing and actually building something," Geist said. "There are questions we don't even think to ask as adults that a (student) will ask."
Geist helps clean up formerly used defense sites in Alaska that have potential for surrounding contaminants. Students reached the conclusion that it is important to clean up these sites because of the possible affects that pollutants have on wildlife and people living nearby.
"It's that curiosity that is really cool to see," she said. "It's a great opportunity to share with them what we do and that there is more to mom and dad sitting at a desk."
The students learned about engineering concepts such as tension and compression, and how they relate to the building materials used for structures. Students informed DeRocchi what these concepts meant after being quizzed. Compression is when the material is being pushed together, said one student. Tension is when the material is pulled apart, said another.
"The best way to learn about bridges is to just do it!" DeRocchi exclaimed to the students.
After receiving a tutorial, students were sent home with resources on how to download the U.S. Military Academy's West Point Bridge Designer software onto their family computers. The program allows users to design and test a bridge while simulating the challenges of material cost and landscape. The free software can be accessed at http://bridgecontest.usma.edu/download.htm.
Getting elementary students excited about the possibilities of science, technology, engineering and mathematics is proving to be another way the Alaska District is "Building and Preserving Alaska's Future."