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Showing tomorrow’s engineers the ropes

May 15, 2019

Offering students hands-on, real-world perspectives on STEM career fields

By Michael Marshall

It all started with an email. I have several family members who work as teachers in local school districts in the Denver area. I found out that teachers are looking to get more hands-on, real world perspectives on STEM jobs to reinforce what is being taught in the classroom and to inspire students on these career paths. One email turned into a response from one teacher and I’ve been visiting classrooms now for the last two years.

Our audience consists of students ranging from 9th to 12th grade levels who are enrolled in engineering-focused classes or are interested in some sort of engineering. A typical visit involved just myself or me and a colleague from the bridge inspection team. We wanted to grab the attention of the students and anticipated this would be a tough task as a typical PowerPoint presentation for high school students can easily end up as nap time. We started things off with an introduction and safety moment without getting too far into what we do. We followed with a video of one of our larger projects, inspection of the O’Callaghan Tillman Memorial Bridge in southern Nevada. The rope access work next to a national landmark like the Hoover Dam, 900 feet above the Colorado River, gave us the “wow” factor we needed to kick off our presentation. 

We transitioned into a deeper discussion on what we do and the path we took to a career as a bridge inspector. We focused on the unique paths each person takes to get through engineering school and any detours that were taken. So many students think college is a four-year journey that follows a straight line, when in reality there can be deviations. We also introduced other team members’ stories that don’t include a college path. This further established the concept that there isn’t one path to engineering. 

We wrapped up the presentation with how we inspect bridges, qualifications to become an inspector, and a deeper look at the mechanics behind bridge inspection. We used activities and Q&A time to keep the students interested, and had hands-on demonstrations working with ropes and pulleys to show the mechanical advantages used in rope access work. It went as far as students (even the Vice Principal) pulling themselves across the classroom in a sled to show different ways mechanical advantage can work. 

Unique Experience

We found an opportunity to turn our typical presentation into a field trip. Our Denver team has a project for statewide tunnel inspections in Colorado, which includes the inspection of the Eisenhower Johnson Memorial Tunnel, a civil engineering landmark in Colorado. This tunnel, aside from being the highest elevation tunnel in the United States, also houses numerous CDOT engineers and staff which monitor and serve as the heartbeat for the I-70 corridor across the Continental Divide. We used our client contacts, as well as key staff in our group, to organize a field trip to the tunnel headquarters and show an inside perspective on what is being done to ensure the safety of the local traveling public. Employees at the tunnel shared stories, gave an overview of their background, and showed students the different career paths that existed. The trip was made possible due to the great client relationship we have through Mike Salamon, who worked for CDOT for 37 years, 22 of which were at the tunnel. This opportunity not only engaged Stantec with the community and working with a local high school, but also allowed our client to connect in the same way. Win, win, win!

Working with these high school students, while at the same time sharing our Stantec story, has been nothing but rewarding. I wasn’t sure when we started if we would be able to keep the attention of a group of high school kids with our story. But after the first few visits, we received thank you notes telling us what they learned and the unique perspective they now have. It brought to light how much the benefit went beyond Stantec—it has a direct impact on students and their future. I hope to continue these visits moving forward with the goal of inspiring future engineers.

About the Author
Part of Stantec’s rope access bridge inspection team, Michael Marshall is a team leader working on transportation and inspection projects throughout Nevada and Colorado. He spends time outside of work educating and inspiring students on different career paths available in the STEM fields

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