The hands-on approach to inspire the next generation of structural engineers
To dream about the future is one of the main parts of being young. At every family dinner, questions about what they aim for in the future come up, and they give the best answers they have at the moment, depending on their interests and who in the family they admire. Maybe they want to be artists, doctors, or lawyers. For those interested in math and who feel a pull for understanding how things are built, SEAONC holds a series of activities that might be an example of how to make this decision a little easier.
SEAONC is the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California, an association created to advance structural engineering practice, build community among members, and educate the public regarding the structural engineering profession.
In 2021, SEAONC's Public Outreach Committee successfully hosted three Structural Engineering Workshops with high school students in partnership with local chapters of NSBE Jr. (National Society Of Black Engineers) and SHPE Jr (Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers).
Truss Your Instincts, the first workshop
Despite the initial intention of making an in-person event, they had to change plans and hosted online workshops due to the pandemics.
"Truss Your Instincts", as they called the first workshop, took place in June. It started with an introduction to structural engineering with information about the field and the career, discussions about terminology, and how architects, engineers, and contractors collaborate to create safe and sustainable buildings.
SEAONC sent Mola Structural Kits to the students at their homes and the voluntary mentors used them to convey fundamental concepts in applied sciences and engineering at the hands-on stage of the workshop, such as in-plane and out-of-plane stability, buckling, diaphragms, differences between moment and braced frames, natural frequency of buildings, and common soft-story failures in the Bay Area.
As SEAONC states, "the primary learning objectives were breaking down complex real-world problems into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering, evaluating solutions based on cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts, and understanding structural behaviors to refine the structure and eliminate any negative behaviors."
About the structure of the event, they explain further: "the workshop was divided into three parts of increasing complexity, starting with a demonstration of general stability principles on a 2D portal frame, further developing 3D portal and braced frames and finally, building a 3-story model of a single bay from One Maritime Plaza Tower in San Francisco."
Context is a vital component of learning. Using a building they already knew as an example brings the structural concepts closer to the students, deepening their understanding. It's important to notice how SEAONC used their cultural, historical and social experiences to make abstract concepts much more tangible and easy to learn.
Another example of this approach is the use of the San Francisco Bay Bridge to demonstrate how truss structures work.
After experimenting with the app "Build a Bridge" and trying to complete some construction challenges inside the app, they had some time to get back to more hands-on activities, now free to apply different loads and see how their truss structures react.
The second event took place on December 11th and after thoughtful consideration about safety, they decided to host a virtual workshop again, incorporating lessons learned and improvements from previous experience.
Volunteers were watchful to guarantee all teenagers were enjoying and absorbing the content properly. If they noticed someone was struggling, one of the mentors created a breakout room to help that student individually. Questions solved, they returned to the group room. And at specific points of the activity, they asked poll questions to keep the students engaged and foster interaction.
The activities focused on trusses, force members, tension and compression. To apply what the teenagers learned, SEAONC challenged them to use Mola Structural Kits to build truss bridges with the longest span length.
Holding an in-person event
Also in December, SEAONC partnered with SHPE Jr. and held an in-person event (this time, called "Frame Of Thrones") with due health precautions.
Besides the introduction to structural engineering and to structural concepts, this time they promoted a competition where each group had to build the tallest structure with Mola Structural Kits. After that, they tested the structure on a shake table. The most resilient was the winner.
One of the most impressive details of these projects is that SEAONC gifts every young participant with the Mola Structural Kit they used in the activity. This is a great way to encourage young students to keep practicing and have fun learning about structures.
Now the Committee is improving the support material for the events, creating documents and visual guides to create more activities and challenges to make the workshops even more fun. We'd like to thank Martina Sbicca and Derek Avrit for the collaboration, giving us every information about the projects, and for the courtesy of giving us the images that illustrate this article.
We love to see Mola Structural Kits used to inspire the youth and allow the public to understand the role of structural engineers in society.