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Posted 11/15/2012

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By Carlos J. Lazo

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – At 8.0, the building's top floor fell, and the looks of worry intensified. As the ground below the building continued to shake - increasing to 10.0 on the Richter scale - everyone waited for the inevitable. Nearly 30 seconds after the ground initially began to shake, it happened; the building crumbled but everyone still cheered.

Of course, this was no ordinary building; it was a 24-inch structure designed and constructed by ninth graders at Hiram W. Johnson High School in Sacramento as part of an engineering challenge. It was  one of three challenges the 125 students were assigned during a science, technology, engineering and mathematics - or STEM - event Nov. 9, 2012, hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District.

"We are showing them some of the work we've done here locally, [to] create some recognition and awareness, and really inspire some career choices as they approach that time in life when they might be thinking about what to do when they grow up," said Alicia Kirchner, chief of the Sacramento District's planning division.

Kirchner was joined by the deputy district engineer, Lt. Col. Braden LeMaster, and more than 12 other district employees at the event.

"The Corps is really an agency filled with dedicated professionals; many, of course, in the engineering and science disciplines. And we are really enthusiastic about being able to get out and work with kids and inspire them to follow these career paths that so many with the Corps have followed," said Kirchner.

Before Corps staff talked to the students about STEM, though, they met with their parents Nov. 8 to explain why the Corps was hosting such an event.

"We want your children to continue studying and pursue STEM-related degrees," said LeMaster. "The Corps needs more engineers, more architects, more biologists and many more employees with these specific skills. But more importantly, the nation needs more STEM professionals."

Working with the Corps to spread this message, both at the parent and student events, were representatives from Great Minds in STEM, who organized the day's activities, which included a bit of STEM-specific role playing.

"We had them divided into teams and we told them because they are so smart, they got into the graduate program," said Helen Barriere, coordinator for education programs with GMiS. "They went to [University of California - Davis] and got their bachelors; into the masters program at [University of Southern California]; and ultimately got their Ph.D. from MIT.

"For the rest of the day, all the students are doctors and have to refer to themselves as doctors," said Barriere, "and they are working in their teams as doctors in different fields - we have biologists, environmental engineers, civil engineers, electrical engineers; you name it, we have it."

Following their pretend graduation ceremonies, the newly-minted doctors began planning and building their towers.   Once they were built, it was on to the next challenge: building a beam bridge following specific plans provided by the Corps and GMiS.

To really drive home the message that a career in a STEM-related field could be theirs, the students were also given the opportunity to ask a Hiram W. Johnson High School graduate and current Corps employee, Linda Finley, about her journey to an engineering career.

"They were interested in the types of projects that I do, and what it took to be able to get through engineering - was it a four-year school, a five-year school?" said Finley, the Sacramento District's deputy for project management. "They wanted to ask some of those details and you can see it’s got them thinking, and that's a good thing."

Finley also served as an honorary judge for the students’ last challenge - developing an invention for use in the year 3000.

From portable solar charges to shrinking robots capable of fixing phones and computers, to breathing devices that could be used in space and underwater; the student doctors covered a wide spectrum of uses with their inventions.

But none of them could protect their first challenge from its final test.

One by one, each team placed their tower on a portable earthquake simulator. Simulating earthquakes ranging from 0.1 to 10 on the Richter scale, the little device shook and brought down the first tower after 29 seconds. Others would share a similar fate, but several teams - thanks to some ingenuity - saw their creations survive more than 40 seconds of a 10.0 earthquake with no signs of damage.

At the end of the day, LeMaster and Kirchner said they hope the students realized all the great opportunities available to them with a STEM-related degree.

"I'm looking for STEM graduates or people that want to pursue STEM in the future as we walk away from this event today," said LeMaster.

Added Kirchner, "The world needs scientists and engineers."