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Young engineers build on success

By DENIS THERIAULT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2000


TAMPA -- Three cracks rang out like baby thunder, a shard of wood hurtled through the air and 14-year-old Shane Cooke couldn't believe what he was seeing.

Uh-uh. You better not break," Cooke said, brow furrowed and eyes rolling, as the model bridge he spent hours building started buckling under just 16 pounds of pressure.

Cooke kept pumping the pneumatic machine that added more weight, but he noticed the gauge stayed stuck at 16. Then, right before the bridge cracked in half, the gauge righted itself and jumped to 131 pounds.

Cooke let out his breath. The gauge had been malfunctioning. His bridge passed its strength test.

"It better have for all the work I put into it," Cooke said.

Cooke was one of almost 150 sixth- through 12th-graders from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties gathered at Tampa's Jefferson High School on Saturday morning to match their engineering wits in the eighth annual Tampa Bay Area SECME Competition.

The participants were all members of the Yes -- We Care program, a group seeking to boost minority representation in engineering. The group hosts the contest every year to inspire friendly competition between its Pinellas and Hillsborough chapters.

Sacrificing a slate of Saturday morning cartoons, these kids opted to crush 18-inch model bridges made from balsa sticks and glue, to race cars made from mousetraps, to test containers built to protect an egg from a 21-foot fall, and to knock skulls in a 40-question, Jeopardy-like brain bowl.

It was nothing new for them. Every Saturday morning for nine months, these teenagers trade in TV and sleep for three hours of classes that teach them about engineering.

"I don't like getting up on Saturdays, but it's all right," Cooke said.

Before the students do anything fun, they have to bone up on their physics and algebra. Older kids, more familiar with the concepts, take on a mentor relationship with the younger. Only after they know their stuff can the students start preparing for the contests.

To do well at those contests, students are forced to use the sum of their Saturday knowledge and solve a series of basic engineering puzzles. Bridge builders had to use balsa sticks and glue to build a bridge that supported more than 100 pounds of pressure while weighing less than a quarter of a pound.

Constructing the delicate bridges also required precision, something 17-year-old Jarrod Williams said he didn't have. Williams' bridge, rehashing the design he used in last year's competition, supported only 60 pounds.

"It didn't look right this year," he said. "I can't cut a straight line."

Mousetrap cars, on the other hand, could be built to any dimension so long as they relied only on the trap's spring for propulsion. Judges then measured how far the cars went. A car that was too heavy would be slowed by too much friction, but a car that was too light would spin without moving.

As he fiddled with his car, a tiny device made from half a mousetrap and a paint-stirring stick with two compact discs for wheels, 15-year-old Rick Blair said he made a mistake. The car was too light.

"It won last year, except it was bigger," he said. "We were in middle school and there was no competition."

Egg drop contestants had perhaps the simplest objective: keep the yolk from splattering on the floor. But it wasn't so easy. Yellow goo was everywhere when the contest finished.

"It was the first time I've done this," said Carlos Smith, dean of the college of engineering at the University of South Florida and one of the judges.

Throughout the day, students and teachers alike continually hovered around Rudolf Henning, the competition's "father." Henning, a USF electrical engineering professor, founded Yes -- We Care in 1983 amid concerns from businesses that not enough minorities and women were working as engineers.

"The moment I heard that, it became a serious problem for me," Henning said. "We're throwing away a true resource if we don't have everybody in society working on problems."

Drawing on donations from local industry and help from colleagues, Henning opened the program's first classes at Pinellas Park High School. He then set up a Hillsborough chapter in 1991. Classes are now taught at two high schools in Pinellas and four in Hillsborough.

But funding and staffing have been ongoing concerns for the program, Henning said. Its teachers, all of whom are certified, have to be paid for their time. That way, Henning said, he can hold them accountable and ensure that the students are learning everything they're supposed to. In addition, the program can't afford to buy all the materials need for its classes and competitions, meaning Henning is constantly searching for sponsors.

"It's a financial challenge to keep this thing going," he said.

He has received some help. NASA finances the Hillsborough chapter, and groups such as the Florida Engineering Society chip in with money and volunteers for the Pinellas chapter. The program also receives state and federal grants.

Pinellas and Hillsborough schools also lend their support to the program. Not only do they provide a location and recruit students for the program, they also help to physically bring students to the program. Yes -- We Care can't provide bus service, so the schools help find car pools and rides for students whose parents can't give them a ride.

"We try to work around it whenever we can," said Nancy Marsh, science supervisor for Hillsborough schools.

Henning said as long as those efforts continue, the program is too vital to abandon.

"There's not one school outside of college that has an engineering class," he said. "You'd be surprised how many kids don't know what engineering is."

Marsh said the program does its best to make sure kids are learning. For instance, when students get their report cards, they are encouraged to bring them to class, where Yes -- We Care teachers can help with any difficult subjects. As incentive, the program gives out awards for those kids who have a 3.0 or 3.5 grade point average at the end of the year.

And the kids say its working. Richard Trevisani, a talkative 15-year-old, said he not only learned about engineering, he learned about himself.

"I've been a shy person lately," Trevisani said. "I learned how to communicate here."

And Cooke said his math grades have improved after three years in the program. He also said it has brought him more discipline.

"I'd want to quit building," he said. "But you know, when i'm done, it feels good."

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