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Students & Educators, SEAKM (Kansas-Missouri)


What initially started off as a simple attempt to help out one of our local elementary schools with some school supplies has grown very rapidly recently into a much larger outreach program promoting structural engineering.  It’s been very exciting to say the least, and this outreach has an enormous amount of growth potential.

At the beginning of this year, SEAKM (the SEA of Kansas and Missouri), received a grant from NCSEA to help an elementary school here in Kansas City.  The intent was to provide materials or supplies to support a weekly student learning activity period.  The SEAKM board brainstormed ideas about what they might need or want, and came up with the Mola magnetic structural models idea to suggest to the school, if they didn’t have another specific need in mind.  

When I proposed our idea to the school’s Principal, she loved it, and was very grateful for the generosity, but didn’t think it was fair to the other three elementary schools in the district if only one school benefitted.  She thought they should be able to use the models as well, so she recommended that I contact the Assistant Superintendent at the district level – which I did.   He loved the idea and was also very appreciative for the gift.  He was already familiar with Mola Models, and thought they would be perfect for the classrooms, so we purchased several of the kits. 

Due to the shutdown, coordinating a time to get together with the Assistant Superintendent and teachers proved to be challenging.  In the meantime, NCSEA learned about our efforts, and were very supportive.  It fell right in line with their goal of getting engineers out to the schools to promote structural engineering and build community relationships.  Within a very short period of time, during one of the most amazing weeks of my professional career, I ended up on a conference call with several members of NCSEA, as well as the CEO and COO of Mola Models.  SEAKM, NCSEA, and Mola Models then began working together directly on what has now become the Mola Model Initiative.  We are in the early stages of working to develop lesson plans, activities, and exercises that can be used by engineers visiting local classrooms, as well as teachers in their classes, utilizing the Mola Models to work toward their educational curriculum and STEM goals.

Through all of this, we were eventually able to plan an event where I, along with two other SEAKM board members, met with the Assist. Super. and four teachers from the district, from elementary, middle, and high school levels.  Due to the shutdown rules, we were not able to interact with the students directly, but one of the teachers had her two kids with her at our meeting.  I started by introducing them all to the models, telling them a little about how they represent what Structural Engineers do on a daily basis, and showing them “how” to build with the kits.  

Then we officially gave the kits to the district and handed them out so that the teachers could try them out.  It took a few minutes for everyone to get into the swing of it, but once we all dove into it, it turned out to be a lot of fun.  The kits are very intuitive to use, and they are robust, which makes them a lot easier for the teachers than marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti.  As they were building and experimenting, we talked about structural engineering issues such as how we use elements like vertical braces and diaphragms in building design.  They could see for themselves how much stiffer a structure is with vertical braces than moment frames.  And it became immediately obvious how important construction bracing is at every stage of construction.  

There were, of course, lots of structure collapses – which were hilarious and frustrating at the same time.

It was an amazing afternoon for all of us; very memorable, and a lot of fun.  One point that I didn’t expect in all of this was how much the teachers appreciated direct contact with practicing engineers - even more than they appreciated the gift.

Since our meeting, I have been in contact with the Assist. Super. and learned that the district has purchased several additional kits to supplement those we gave them.  I have also been in contact with one of the teachers who asked if I, or someone from SEAKM, can partner with her for one of the learning units 3rd quarter.  I have also been in contact with another SEA that is interested in starting a similar outreach.  

As we go forward, there are several next steps.  We will be getting teacher feedback and ideas for age-appropriate lessons and exercises utilizing the models.  We will be working to develop material and curriculum that can be used in the classroom, by the teachers, or by SEA engineers visiting the classrooms.  We hope to expand the outreach to other schools or districts in Kansas and Missouri, and to foster long-term relationships between the SEAKM and schools.  And we would like to help other SEA’s who may be interested in creating similar outreach programs in their associations, even if only by telling our story.