Area Engineering Firms Set Example For Students

April 11, 2002
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — In an effort to create awareness and interest in a career in engineering, two area engineering firms, along with the Grand Rapids Area Pre-College Engineering Program (GRAPCEP), initiated National Engineers Week.

Late last month National Engineers Week kicked off in Grand Rapids as GRAPCEP, Fishbeck, Thompson, Carl & Huber (FTC&H) and Steelcase sponsored competitions at Union, Creston, Central and Ottawa Hills high schools.

“This is the fourth year that engineers from local firms have donated their time and energy to help the GRAPCEP staff design events and conduct the competition,” said Sandra Burmeister, executive director of GRAPCEP. “The students and engineers have a great time and students get some incentive to learn more about engineering.”

The program involved three activities at the four participating schools.

The first, “Racquetball Ski Jump,” required students to calculate the correct placement of a racquetball on the “ski jump” ramp so that, once release, the ball would gain sufficient impetus to land in a bucket at a given distance from the end of the ramp.

The second activity, “Logic Thriller: Who’s Driving the Car,” asked students to decide who was driving the car as described in a problem containing a number of variables.

“Momentum Madness” was created to see if students could figure out the shortest time possible to slow down balls moving in a computer model so that the total velocity was less than 1.0 unit.

Engineers from FTC&H were on hand at each school to assist in the activities. “We had numerous engineers from our firm there to help students — not give them the answers to the problems, but to help them become successful and answer questions while the students were going through the logic,” said Brenda Heerdt, human resources director for FTC&H.

“The nine engineers we sent were also able to field questions about engineering as a profession, and it also gave the students an opportunity to see a real engineer.

“Often,” Herrdt said, “they see it as a profession and not as a person.”

While students participating in the school competitions weren’t required to be members of GRAPCEP, the program says it does offer numerous benefits to those who join. The program is administered by Davenport University.

Burmeister said GRAPCEP is intended to meet the need for well-trained engineers and scientists for growing businesses of West Michigan and to increase the number of historically under-represented populations in these career fields.

Student members are selected from Grand Rapids Public Schools and must, first of all, have a grade point average of 2.6.

Teacher recommendations are also required and two GRAPCEP staff members interview each potential member. Based upon the interviews, test scores, GPA and teacher recommendations, a student may be accepted into the program.

“GRAPCEP is looking for students with good school work habits and grades and who show strong motivation along with creativity, analytical reasoning skills and problem solving abilities,” Burmeister said.

Starting its first class in January 1998, GRAPCEP graduated its first class of 17 in 2000. Fifteen went on to begin a career in science, math or engineering, and the other two went on to careers in education.

Between 200 and 250 students are involved in the program.

“We follow students from day one of high school all the way through the first two years of employment,” Burmeister said.

“Through this program we hope to assist students in getting the job that will help them succeed, and that is why we expose students to all areas of engineering, science and math so they can see that there is a viable option out there for them. We are trying to encourage people to be top performers. The student body in school today is very bright and sometimes need to be challenged more than they actually are.”

As well as being involved in National Engineers Week, FTC&H assist students throughout the year with tours of its facilities, job shadowing and tutoring. “We set the students up with a mentor in our firm and then they are able to provide solutions, advice and help through Internet chat,” said Heerdt.

“When the students are set up with an engineer buddy, it allows them to see the real world of engineering, as well as being able to find out everything they ever wanted to know from a real-life engineer.”

GRAPCEP also provides a weeklong summer program where students are able to have a hands-on experience with science.

“The students do a lot of work during those five days but hopefully it is presented in a fun and interesting manner, and that is what will really get them interested,” Burmeister added. “It is challenging but is also project-based so it can provide the student with information while giving the feeling of simply playing a game.”

Another option GRAPCEP offers are after-school programs.

“We start in eighth grade with hands-on tours of engineering firms,” explained Burmeister. “That continues in ninth grade and then in tenth grade the students do job shadowing. And in 11th, they move on to internships. By then it is possible that the students have seen an area of engineering, math or science that interested them, and we try to set them up with an internship in that field.”

“It is important for these students to see the engineers as real people, to see that they enjoy what they are doing and that an engineer can be male, female, any race, religion etc.,” Heerdt added.

“The students who are interested in this profession are also always looking for advice on where to go to college, what courses to take and what kind of a job to get to prepare them for a job as an engineer.”

Upon graduation students are assisted by GRAPCEP staff members who advocate for college scholarship opportunities on their behalf, as well as assist with applications to colleges the students are interested in.

Teachers reportedly also benefit from the program. GRAPCEP offers teachers training classes and workshops to enhance teaching skills, particularly in classroom use of applied mathematics and science, project-based teaching, active learning strategies and computer technology.

GRAPCEP also links teachers to engineers and scientists and to other resources offered by the GRAPCEP business partners. BJ

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