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Bringing engineering home

How do you inspire students in a community hit hard by the economy? Engineering!

Experiencing a typical day in the Appalachian Mountain region of eastern Kentucky can be shocking for some, but for me, it’s all a part of my roots. Today, the "normal" in this community is to see businesses closing their doors and jobs diminishing by the thousands, so sometimes it is easy to see the frustration from working adults trying to remain positive about the future.

That’s why it was an eye-opening experience for me, as a native, to participate in Career Day at Lee County High School, my alma mater. While it would be easy for these students to exhibit some pessimism about their future given the state of the local economy, what they showed instead was amazing curiosity to learn and completely understand the economic disparity they face (according to the U.S. Census, Lee County is the 14th poorest county in the U.S. with an average household income of $18,544 per year). In fact, Stantec’s role in shaping transportation throughout the state really seemed to inspire some of these students to become future leaders in engineering and in their community.

It all started when I returned home to this struggling town of Beattyville in November for Career Day, which involved professionals from a variety of fields rotating to different classrooms every 10 minutes to educate students about their chosen careers.

I challenge you to try to explain civil engineering to high school students in ten minutes. How did I do it? I started with the Egyptians, then the Mayans and Greeks and then brought my presentation home – to their community – talking about the infrastructure in their town and then taking it even closer by discussing the highway leading to the school and buildings around them. I explained how civil engineers design and build the communities that we call home. I showed them how a recent project on KY 52 in Beattyville (the county seat of Lee County) now allows school buses and passenger cars to access the school much easier and more safely than before. I even showcased how our engineering designs built the bridges and roadway they travel, and how our work enhances connectivity, while creating value for all. With a broad scope in mind, I explained to the students that engineers simply solve infrastructure problems in their communities.

What really seemed to be an enlightening illustration for the students was Stantec’s very own design for the DCD (Double Crossover Diamond) Interchange in Lexington, KY. I showed a short video rendering of the interchange as well as a large aerial view display board, and immediately the students were asking about the purpose of such a twisted design. So I explained: Engineers come up with designs to make things safer and more efficient, while being highly constructible and cost effective. I told them that while something like the DCD is unconventional and looks odd to most of us, it is actually a precise fit that has helped reduce crashes, increase traffic flow, and make lives easier, all while staying within the project budget. What happened then was great – many of the students were so interested, they stayed after the presentation to ask more questions and get an even better understanding of how to make a community (like theirs) thrive!

Looking beyond the engineering impact made that day, I am pleased to see the school and its students really benefited from the driving concept of Career Day – to encourage optimism, individual fortitude, and perseverance to propel students to break barriers and reach their goals. What’s more, Career Day discussions seemed to capture the imagination of some young minds in a town that desperately needs the next generation to take interest and make it a successful home for the future. Working with young people can be the most rewarding experiences of your life.

When a hand is raised along with a look of curiosity, you know you are doing the right thing. Is there a better way to encourage young people than cultivating interest in critical thought and career planning?

Adam Mays is a transportation engineer in Lexington, Kentucky

Discussions seemed to capture the imagination of some young minds in a town that desperately needs the next generation to take interest.


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