Annual Francis Tuttle Pre-Engineering Academy attracts hundreds of middle-school students
By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2015 The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
Most comets generally travel through the solar system unnoticed by anyone but astronomers.
Then sometimes, a comet passing between the sun and the earth becomes bright enough to be noticed by casual observers. People who don’t ordinarily make comets their business stop and stare into the sky.
STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education is like a comet with a very long tail.
Earlier this month, Francis Tuttle Pre-Engineering Academy hosted the eighth annual Engineering Challenge for students in the sixth to ninth grades. A whopping 432 middle schoolers came.
The challenge is organized and run by senior pre-engineering students.
“It’s our turn to step up and show these younger kids how much fun engineering can be,” Masen Nichols said. “It’s frantic, and fun and easy for the kids. They see what they are capable of and get excited. The number of students that were here and how much enjoyment they had — it’s astounding.”
Students could choose between 10 challenges, which including building a 16-inch model bridge using only small wooden sticks (tongue depressors forbidden) and glue (only to bond). Another challenge was to turn off a light bulb by harnessing a gas produced by Alka-Seltzer and water. And then there was the annual favorite, a mousetrap-powered vehicle.
“This gives the opportunity for younger students to get hands-on experience to see if engineering is worth pursuing,” Morgan Oathout said. “I always had a strong desire to know how things work. Once I found something that was a good way to express and learn from that, I got very excited. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it.”
So how can we create that aha moment in more young people — especially girls and women like Masen and Morgan?
“Kids decide too early they don’t like science or math,” Masen said. “No one exposes them to how much fun it can be. These kids at the Engineering Challenge learn complicated concepts, but they have such a great time doing it, they don’t realize that it’s the thing they thought they didn’t like.”
Morgan says that for engineering, students don’t have to love math and science as much as be persistent.
“If instead of saying ‘I don’t like math,’ you look at projects the way a kid looks at them, you are going to see a lot of fun,” she said. “You can be fascinated with engineering the same way a very little kid is fascinated with the whole world. Eventually you realize that the math and science are just tools to pursue your passion.”
So how do we create more innovation and investable deals in Oklahoma? One way is for our education systems to inspire our students to be more intellectually curious and create more engineers. How? Let them see the “fun” of discovery and problem solving while they’re young.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at [email protected].