Inspiring the next generation of engineers

All relatives, friends or neighbors of members of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), the young additions to the community were on campus for the second annual CEE Kids Camp, a day filled with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) activities that showcased research topics throughout the department.

“We started CEE Kids Camp last year to show friends and relatives of our community what it means to work in CEE and to inspire the next generation of STEM students,” said Markus Buehler, head of CEE and the McAfee Professor of Engineering. “All of the children were excited to attend the event and to share what they created throughout the day. The camp was a unique opportunity to sample the diverse research areas in CEE for young children to show them what it means to be a civil and environmental engineer.”

The one-day camp was held on Aug. 15, beginning with an orientation breakfast, where the group received schedules, camp shirts, bags, and CEE water bottles. The kids also learned about the environmental impact of disposable water bottles and the importance of using reusable ones — information that became trivia question material later in the day.

Led by volunteers from across the department, the camp consisted of seven stations featuring kid-friendly activities that exposed participants to a number of research areas, including fluid mechanics, concrete sustainability, earthquake-resistant structures, and bioinspired materials.

“All of the activities and presentations were created with kids of all ages in mind; you could tell that a lot of thought went into making sure that everything was at a level everyone could understand,” said Kathy Briana, the lead organizer of the camp and a CEE staff member. “It was a busy day hosting so many kids and teenagers, but it was a lot of fun.”

The participants were broken into smaller groups and took turns rotating between stations, which were hosted by faculty members, lecturers, students, and department affiliates. The tasks had varying levels of difficulty, but volunteers were on hand to guide each child through the activities.

Assistant Professor Tal Cohen, who specializes in nonlinear solid mechanics and material instabilities, hosted a session that invited children to build their own structures using a magnetic modeling kit. Participants were challenged to figure out how to build a structurally-sound model, and then to build bridges connecting their structure to their neighbor’s creation.

“I was expecting them to be much more creative than adults are, and it was very obvious that they were thinking of all kinds of solutions that we probably wouldn’t have even attempted,” Cohen said. “Some of them managed to have buildings with moving objects, some of them built forts, and some managed to build the bridge.”

The groups were also able to use the department’s advanced manufacturing equipment to create their own puzzles. The session, led by members the Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics (LAMM) including research scientists Zhao Qin and Francisco Martin-Martinez, graduate student Isabelle Su, and visiting scholar Flavia Libonati, invited the children to select images that would become the basis of a puzzle. The researchers then brought the students into the lab to see the laser cutter in action as it translated the images onto plastic and cut the material into puzzles for the participants to take home.

As engineers for the day, the groups were also tasked with building, testing and improving a variety of tools and designs. Doug Shattuck, a LAMM research affiliate and teacher at nearby Concord Middle School, and Najia Lloyd, a student member of the MIT-Concord Middle School Research Team, set up four stations for the camp participants to show their creativity and to try to build functional and well-designed devices. Among the tasks were building a marshmallow catapult with tongue depressors; using a magnet, battery, and wire to make a spinning motor; using a spool and pencil to create a racing dragster; and making a flying paper vortex. Shattuck established his personal benchmarks before the camp began, but his records were quickly beaten, and the kids were challenged with beating the records again and again throughout the day.


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