Future City Mentors Offer Insights To Students, And Discover The Favor Has Been Returned
If you can’t clearly communicate with a 12-year-old, Margaret Mead once said, you need a better grasp on your subject matter. The legendary anthropologist would be proud of William Waldron.
Waldron, a manager of performance engineering at Cingular Wireless, volunteers as a mentor with the National Engineers Week Future City CompetitionTM, explaining his profession to 7th- and 8th-graders at Drexel Hill Middle School in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. “It’s a lot more rewarding than you could imagine,” says Waldron. A large part of his personal satisfaction, he says, results from the benefits it gives the students, particularly the insights they get from an engineering perspective. “It really helps kids resolve issues. It gives them an outlook on different possibilities as a career, a more complete view of the world and more options for their lives.”
The students, under the guidance of a teacher, tap his knowledge as they create their city on computer using SimCity 3000, build a 3-D model of the city, and write an essay – all in the hopes of winning the regional competition in January and an all-expense-paid trip to the National Finals in Washington, D.C. in February. In 2004, more than 30,000 students from 1,100 schools in 33 regions participated in Future City, the largest engineering education program in the country. The competition expands to 38 regions in 2005, with finals scheduled for February 21-23, 2005 during National Engineers Week, co-chaired by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and BP.
If Drexel Hill’s past performance is any indication, the team’s engineer mentor has fairly mastered the art of communicating with young people. The school’s entry has won the Philadelphia regional three years out of the last four, and took third place at this year’s National Finals.
Timothy Cullina, a mentor at St. Barnabas Catholic School in Chicago, says he aims to expand awareness for his young charges, too. “The goal is getting them to grasp the big picture,” says Cullina, a mechanical and environmental engineer and director of environmental safety and health for American Container Net. “Engineering is something they experience every day, but they don’t understand why. There’s a broad list of topics they touch every day in their world, but they have no idea how they work.”
Future City, he says, offers students a chance to see, first hand, how engineering goes from creative concept to finished product, the efforts of many working toward a common goal. “When they work on Future City, they’re working on a lot of little pieces,” he notes. “Then all of a sudden they have that ‘Ah hah!’ moment. They realize that all the little things add up to the big picture.”
Dennis Keitel, a project manager at Hall and Hall Engineers and mentor for Harding Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, also seeks to open eyes to engineering, noting that volunteering with Future City gives him a chance to spread the word about his profession. “My job as a mentor is to get these junior high kids fired up,” Keitel says. “Engineers don’t toot our own horns enough, but we’re what makes the world go round. It’s important that these kids consider engineering as a career.”
Future City, he adds, offers insights for children who get plenty of information from television and other sources about careers as doctors, lawyers, detectives, even medical examiners. “But they don’t see shows about engineers, so they don’t see it as an exciting profession – and it is!”
If his enthusiasm sounds infectious, that’s how Keitel intends it. “If I can get even two or three kids out of 24 to consider becoming an engineer, I’ve done my job,” he says. In fact, at least one member of his all-girl team that went to the National Finals this year is already on the path to becoming an engineer. “I’m sure she’ll maintain the enthusiasm,” he says, adding that his region helps ensure that by giving each member of the first place team an engineering scholarship.
Clearly, the students benefit and the profession benefits, but what’s in it for the mentors? What, for example, drove Bill Waldron to get up extra early every morning in the weeks leading up to his team’s trip to regionals? What has kept Dennis Keitel, Timothy Cullina and hundreds of other volunteer engineers returning year after year to field yet another team?
Waldron says he enjoys the interaction with other engineers at the regional and national competitions and the thrill of helping spark young imaginations. “The experience is fantastic.”
“It keeps you enthusiastic about why you became an engineer,” says Cullina. “Early on, you’re the one trying to explain to these kids why engineering is exciting. Later it’s the kids who come back with a lot of energy and that motivates you.”
Keitel says it’s helped his communication skills on the job. “I’ve learned how to be a better supervisor,” he says, “to be more tolerant of younger engineers when they don’t get a point that I’m trying to make. When you’ve learned to talk with 12-year-olds, you’ve learned how to break something down so that people can understand it.”
The Future City regional coordinators, volunteers who organize each of the 38 local competitions, echo the mentors’ enthusiasm. “Future City students see that anyone can be an engineer if they’re willing to work hard,” says Monica Mace, a civil engineer with the Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina, and coordinator for that state’s competition. “Working with the students helps me better appreciate the contributions I make as an engineer – making the world a better, safer, and healthier place for everyone. It reminds you why you entered the profession in the first place.”
For more information, contact Future City National Director Carol Rieg at (877) 636-9578 or CRieg@futurecity.org, or visit www.futurecity.org and click on "Email Contact Form." Engineers will be put in touch with their area's regional coordinator.
Editors Please Note: For photos of 2004 Future City Competition winning teams, contact Donald Lehr at (212) 967-8200 or email@example.com.
In Brief: The National Engineers Week Future City CompetitionTM seeks engineers from every field to volunteer this fall and winter to introduce middle school students across the nation to a career in engineering. Since its founding in 1992, the educational program has made engineering come alive for hundreds of thousands of students. For information on becoming a volunteer mentor, contact Future City National Director Carol Rieg at (877) 636-9578 or CRieg@futurecity.org, or visit www.futurecity.org and click on "Email Contact Form." Engineers will be put in touch with their area's regional coordinator.