Planting the Seeds
VMI Departments Invite Area Middle School Students in for Engineers Week Activities
It’s a pretty safe bet that almost any kid would rather ride a hovercraft than sit in class, and, late last month, more than 250 middle school students from Lexington and Rockbridge County got to do just that, thanks to VMI’s participation in National Engineers Week.
Held Feb. 17-23, the event filled the halls of Nichols Engineering Building with wide-eyed sixth- and seventh-graders who’d been brought to post to catch the engineering “bug” while they’re still young. The program has been ongoing at VMI for approximately eight years.
"The idea is to plant the seed in the brain,” said Maj. Joyce Blandino, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who is in her third year of directing VMI’s participation in National Engineers Week.
Blandino added that she hopes the students will choose high school courses that will lead them into what are commonly called the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Each afternoon during the week, students began their 1½-hour tour of civil and environmental, electrical and computer, and mechanical engineering at VMI with a brief pep talk. Cadet Nathan Meade ’13 got the ball rolling when he asked a group of students, “Who wants to be an engineer?” and only a few hands went up. But when he asked, “Who wants to make a lot of money when they grow up?” every hand in the room waved wildly. It was time for the tour to begin.
Split into groups of 10 to 12, the students toured the fluids lab of the civil and environmental engineering department, where they saw a flume channel not unlike one at a water park, only much smaller. There was also a mock-up of a river and its surrounding flood plain, with an overhead sprinkler system to “rain” on the landscape so the river’s response to precipitation could be measured.
Next, the students got to try their hands at three different types of lever systems for crushing soda cans. The sixth-graders crushed cans with gusto – and at the same time, they learned that the can crusher with the biggest arm gave the most torque, and therefore had the most crushing power.
The can crusher demonstration was followed by what was arguably the highlight of the day: a chance to ride a saucer-shaped hovercraft, powered by a leaf blower engine.
A trip to the robotics lab came next, where four six-legged robots crawled around the floor, much to the students’ delight. Then it was time to see the tick rover, an in-house creation of VMI faculty members Lt. Col. Jay Sullivan, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Col. Jim Squire and Col. Dave Livingston, both professors of electrical and computer engineering. As its name implies, the job of the tick rover is to remove ticks from people’s yards, and thus, it is hoped, stem the spread of tick-borne diseases.
The tour concluded with a trip to the environmental chemistry lab, where Cadet Peerawat Charuwat ’13 wowed the students with a demonstration that involved burning up a gummy bear in a solution of potassium chloride. Charuwat made sure to point out the connection between the candy’s rapid demise and poor eating habits – sugar burns up fast, so it’s not a source of long-lasting energy.
“The stuff we pick has engineering principles but it’s also fun,” said Blandino of the exhibits, which change somewhat each year.
“This is the critical age where we can really impress them,” she continued. “You have to plant a seed one seed at a time.”
-- Mary Price