How does the Woodrow Wilson Bridge withstand the forces of nature and traffic? How does the dome of the U.S. Capitol support itself?
Those are just some of the questions children from the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington in Northeast are trying to find the answers to as they learn the principles of civil engineering.
Each Wednesday through Nov. 8, several local civil engineers will meet with the 15 children from the Merritt School branch of the club to teach them, through hands-on activities, how skyscrapers are built and what keeps tunnels from collapsing.
“This program is very important for black youths because they usually don’t see those types of role models in their communities,” said George Abrams, director of the club branch.
“They need to know it’s a realistic goal and the chances of becoming an engineer are greater than becoming a professional athlete. All you have to do is put a little effort into math and science and you can become a civil engineer. This is what it’s all about.”
The six-week educational program is part of a nationwide partnership between the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and WGBH Boston, an affiliate of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), to teach engineering basics to middle school-age children, especially girls and minorities, who often tend to lose interest in math, science and engineering.
“This is a great way to expose children to engineering as a possible career,” said Peter Perry, past president of the ASCE for the National Capital Section.
“It’s a good way to introduce kids to the fun aspects of engineering,” Mr. Perry added. “If you just reached one kid, then you’ve done well.”
But how does one make civil engineering an exciting topic to a bunch of junior high students, especially after school?
“You have to bring it down to the basics,” said Leo Dumond, a structural engineer with Delon Hampton & Associates in Silver Spring, Md., one of the volunteers.
He gave as examples how a civil engineer is involved in the city’s traffic system, or school building construction.
“Break it down to something they understand, like how is a civil engineer responsible for the quality of water that comes out when they take a shower?”
The approach has caught Jermaine Lassiter’s attention. The 11-year-old student and member of the group’s Torch Club said yesterday he is now thinking about becoming a civil engineer after he began meeting with the volunteers and learning the basics of bridge and building construction.
“I just like it,” he said before yesterday’s session on bridges and domes. “It’s fun to learn about this stuff that you always see, like buildings and bridges and tunnels.”
The curriculum was developed by WGBH and is based on the PBS series “Building Big,” airing each Tuesday this month. The series focuses on five types of engineered construction integral to modern civilization bridges, domes, skyscrapers, dams and tunnels.
The Torch Club members, who are the only ones from the after-school club who are participating in the program, spent yesterday afternoon learning about building bridges like the Wilson Bridge and erecting domes like the Capitol. First, they watched excerpts of the “Building Big” series. They spent the rest of the time building models of the images they had just seen on television.
In between, they asked questions about how the arches on stone arch bridges stay perfectly and how a dome keeps its circular shape.
“We’ve gotten only a positive response from these kids,” said Terry Knox, a project engineer with Thomas L. Brown Associates P.C. in the District and program volunteer.
The children are learning quickly.
After only two sessions with the volunteers, they have learned engineering and architectural terms like “compression” and “caisson” that they use to describe what they’ve learned.
“This is so cool,” said Jasmine Griffin, 11, of Northeast. “We learned about compression and learned how to build bridges. It’s a lot of fun.”