- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

The Zoom Into Engineering Family Festival, held recently at the National Building Museum, was like a classroom where the students never so much as glanced at their watches.

How could they when at one end of the building, their peers were creating slime from scratch, and at the other end, child-created robots were dueling it out for entrepreneurial supremacy?

Parents and children sat side by side Feb. 19, going over each demonstration’s instructions and helping each other figure out the best way to build one gadget or another.

The annual event of the National Engineers Week Foundation, aimed chiefly at children 5 through 13, drew a crush of engineering associations to teach children that their craft isn’t something reserved for bookish types.

The gathering marked the fourth such affair held under the “Zoom” name, but the event has been held in some form at the museum since 1996.

Seventeen engineering organizations chipped in, and a pair of engineering-centric companies — IBM and British Petroleum — lent a hand. That doesn’t count contributions by NASA, the U.S. Navy and Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, among others.

Nearly 7,000 people, about two-thirds of whom were children, dropped by to gawk at the experiments and try some themselves.

On hand to guide the guests were Maya and Mike, two cast members from the educational PBS series “Zoom.”

Presentations were as varied as the aforementioned slime-making booth, from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers, which taught about how heat affects chemical reactions, and a Navy exhibit designed to teach about buoyancy on the high seas.

Another challenge, sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers, asked students to construct a cantilever more than 6 feet long out of straws and masking tape.

Youngsters even could try on an actual spacesuit.

Eileen Langholtz, director of youth education at the National Building Museum, said events like this put the field into a new perspective.

“Engineering has to do with everything, like tunnels and buildings,” Ms. Langholtz said. “It’s all about problem-solving.”

Even something as modest as the interactive Lego display can showcase the intrinsic need for engineering knowledge.

“It’s amazing what they’ll build,” she said of the children. “That’s the essence of engineering.”

Leslie Collins, executive director of the National Engineering Week Foundation, understands that children don’t envision engineering with as serious an eye as adults.

“They love to make slime and blow stuff up,” Ms. Collins said.

That said, there was nothing flip about the serious science going on around her.

“All these activities are reproducible. You don’t have to be a trained professional,” she said.

Ed Worthy, the museum’s vice president of education, said the lessons imparted during the all-day affair don’t have to end.

“We often have teachers come … to lift ideas,” he said.

Dave Lavery, program executive for solar systems exploration with NASA, oversaw the robot challenge, which was more cerebral than rock-‘em-sock-‘em action.

The competition — the only section of the event aimed at older children — grouped high school students to work alongside engineering mentors to create a robot that could solve a submitted problem.

This year, the robots acted as game-piece movers, rolling across a playing field to pick up pieces and pile them on various metal receptacles as quickly as possible.

The engineering fair exists in part “to make heroes out of engineers,” Mr. Lavery said.

“It’s all about getting the students to work side by side with the engineers,” he said. Doing so, he said, shatters the preconception that engineers are “geeks with white lab coats and pocket protectors.”

The mentoring does a lot more than rehabilitate images.

“I’ve had students say, ‘This is really what I want to be,’” Mr. Lavery said. Others report that they appreciate having the engineering option open to them.

“They say, ‘I understand what it’s about … and now I can make an informed choice,’” he said.

Joanne Emerson, 23, of Bethesda, participated in a previous robotic competition and came back this year to serve as a mentor to the current squads. About 25 teams made up of eight to 10 members took part in the games.

They needed a little guidance; at one point, one of the robots shut down unexpectedly.

“To interact with adults on a peer level was very important,” Ms. Emerson said of her high school days.

She ended up becoming a molecular biologist, but her old friends found that the robotic sessions had a bigger impact for them.

“For most of these kids, it changes their career goals,” she said.

Ms. Collins said in too many cases, the students studying engineering are male.

“We need to do a lot of outreach to girls with science,” Ms. Collins said, noting that subtle cultural messages often steer young women into other disciplines.

Boys and girls frolicked through the museum during the fair in seemingly equal numbers.

Young Courtney Boucher, 6, sat with her father trying to meet the cantilever challenge.

The Annapolis youngster coached her father on building the best cantilever that would meet the contest’s guidelines of being at least 5 feet long and able to hover 22 inches off the ground. The only tools at their disposal were common drinking straws and 3 feet of masking tape.

“I’m letting her do it. She’s telling me what to do,” Mr. Boucher said, working hand in hand with his daughter.

Other parents also appreciated the doors opened by the various activities.

“He likes to create things so much. It’s fun where there are new options for him,” said Caren Sturgill of Northern Virginia, who brought her 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son to the event.

District resident Elizabeth Kubic swung by, in part to meet cast members from “Zoom.” She also relished the chance for her two children to receive some hands-on instruction on engineering basics.

“Now they know there are organizations that have programs for kids,” Mrs. Kubic said.

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