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U's answer to need for STEM workers? Let kids have fun with science

SALT LAKE CITY — While many children really enjoy building things or figuring out how things work, few of them understand that such a process involves engineering.

That's why hundreds of local grade schoolers this week are learning the wonders of the many skills within the field of engineering.

About 2,000 fifth- and sixth-grade students from districts across the Wasatch Front will participate in a five-day event at the University of Utah. The event, organized by the U.’s College of Engineering, runs March 23–27 at the A. Ray Olpin Student Union Building ballroom from 9:30 a.m. to noon.

Each day, a group of approximately 400 students form teams to build motorized fish from modeling clay, as well as skyscrapers made from straws and paper clips that must withstand a blast of wind. They also will shoot marshmallows from wooden catapults they built at school, said Ashley Nicholes, administrative program coordinator for the College of Engineering.

“At this age, we’re introducing them to engineering because some of them might not understand what engineers do or who they are,” she said. “This is a good introduction to show that engineering can be fun.”

Nicholes said the kids also meet with members of the university’s engineering departments to learn more about each engineering discipline. The program also informs the students about potential careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

“It’s going to be a fun, exciting and engaging day for these kids, and they’ll come away learning a lot about what makes our world tick,” she said.

The schools that participate in the event receive money donated by Phillips 66 to help advance math and science in the classroom and to show kids engineering principles that enhance their understanding of how science and technology work, she added.

Throughout the school year, outreach advisers visit classrooms to conduct engineering activities with students, while teachers can also receive activity kits and lesson plans from the college for making programmable robots, wind turbines and other STEM-related materials.

Ava Vanekelenburg, 11, a fifth-grader at St. John the Baptist Elementary in Draper, drew on her experiences with her father to help her winning team construct a tower of straws using tape and paper. While she would prefer to pursue a career in medicine as an adult, participating in this kind of event had a special meaning for her.

“My dad and my grandpa use to be engineers, they would be proud of me,” she said.

Among the chaperones, parent Brenda Pehrson of West Point said the event was particularly enthralling to her 11-year-old son who has always enjoyed tinkering with things since he was a small child. She said having him involved in the program was just the kind of event that could boost his enthusiasm for potential career options down the road.

“It’s important that they learn, even at an early age, excitement for (science and engineering),” she explained. “He is really interested in this kind of stuff. It’s right up his alley.”

E-mail: jlee@deseretnews.com

Twitter: JasenLee1