By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Jacqueline Sanchez was in a position most people wouldn’t envy: sitting inside a concrete canoe, watching water seep in through a small hole.
She and her team had worked hard to prepare for the Concrete Canoe Competition at RPI, and when they noticed the leak during their big race, they were, naturally, concerned.
This is the story Sanchez led with during a presentation at Niskayuna High School on Oct. 15. Sanchez is an Engineering Ambassador at her college, where she studies civil engineering and often works creatively with different building materials. She was charged with teaching the high schoolers a little something about lightweight concrete, a topic that Sanchez knows doesn’t initially sound riveting. That’s why she chose to start out with her suspenseful and unusual story about competing in a race with custom-made, concrete canoes.
The Engineering Ambassador program is a nationwide initiative that connects college students with high schoolers who are interested in the same fields. RPI is one of the founding institutions, so the program there is especially strong. Clubs are spreading among other colleges and universities, and RPI students are heavily involved in making sure that trend continues. Earlier this fall, it hosted seven other schools in a training session for their future ambassadors. Among the attendees were students from Union College, Tufts University, the University of Maine and Louisiana State University.
There’s a reason engineering students traveled long distances for RPI’s training: lots of engineering topics, as Sanchez discovered, simply don’t sound very interesting. What’s more, the things that make engineering disciplines so fascinating can often be lost in the academic and technical jargon that accompany them.
Sanchez attended training at a different school when she was a sophomore at RPI, which lead to her attention-grabbing opening at Niskayuna.
“The best way to get students’ attention is to tell a story or ask a question,” she said. And it works — the classes she presents to are hooked.
“The first question is always, ‘Did you make it to the end?’ ” she said.
She uses that leverage to transition smoothly into a discussion about the properties of concrete, and the students stay involved. After a few minutes, they get to try making their own sample by mixing water with a concrete base Sanchez brings to the presentations.
“Most people don’t work with concrete unless that’s your profession,” she said. Students often discover it’s much more interesting than they had imagined, especially once they have a chance to get their hands dirty.
There were lots of presentations like Sanchez’ that day. There were sessions on fluid dynamics, nuclear engineering, designing athletic wear, harnessing wind energy and manufacturing. Each one held their audiences rapt for an entire class period.
Helping younger students understand that engineering can be exciting — and what exactly makes it that way — is at the heart of the Engineering Ambassadors program. Elizabeth Herkenham, who oversees science outreach to K-12 students and freshmen for RPI, said its mission is twofold: to build a pipeline of young engineers who can solve the problems of the future, and to teach undergraduate students at nationwide colleges to take on leadership roles and clearly communicate technical knowledge. To do that, they bring the research they’re doing on campus into high school classrooms.
“Everybody designs their own presentation and learns from one another,” she said.
Maya Manchester, a junior at Niskayuna High School, sat in her honors physics class and absorbed a demonstration about fluid dynamics.
“It’s kind of fun,” she said. She’d met some ambassadors the year before, as well. This is Niskayuna’s third year hosting the college students, and the program keeps growing as more and more teachers hear how much the students enjoy it.
Manchester already knows she’d like to attend RPI, and not just because both of her brothers and her father went there. She is fascinated by a few different kinds of engineering, most of all mechanical, software and computer. She said chatting with the college-aged ambassadors helps her carefully consider which concentration she’d like to enter in a couple of years.
“Usually they have friends who are in those fields,” she said. The RPI visitors are always glad to pass along insider knowledge about the pros and cons of each track.
“They’re around your age and they just learned [the material],” she added.
In another room, mechanical engineering student James Nowak let students try a Lego model of a manufacturing tool called a miller. The machine’s drill could be manipulated to carve designs out of pieces of floral foam, mimicking the way a real one might be used to change the surface of a block of metal or plastic. He had built the Lego miller as part of his senior undergraduate research project, and was happy to share what he’d learned with the high schoolers in the room.
“It’s a good, concrete example,” he said.
Sanchez, by the way, was fine. Even with a hole in their concrete canoe, she and her team won their race. You were wondering, weren’t you? And that is exactly why the Engineering Ambassadors program works so well.